Prophet of Justice

Prophet of Justice

Fifteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Peter Harries preaches on the often unwelcome message of the prophets.

Go away seer, flee away to the land of Judah; earn your bread there, and prophesy there.

Such is the bleak response to Amos’s words from Amaziah, the priest of the royal shrine of Bethel in the land of Israel.

We learn very little about the lives of most of the prophets from their poetry and their writings. Amos was not a professional prophet, but a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees. Why sycamore trees needed attending to we, again don’t know, but some scholars suggest an alcoholic drink could be produced from their sap. What Amos did know was that God had called him to be a prophet and so prophesy he must.

Amos lived in a time of considerable material prosperity for a few and poverty for most. His message of social justice and the downfall of the royal dynasty did not go down well at the royal sanctuary just over the border in Bethel.

The people were divided into two kingdoms, a more powerful northern kingdom of Israel and a weaker kingdom of Judah, centred on Jerusalem and ruled by kings of David’s line. For Amaziah then, Amos was an unwelcome uneducated foreigner from a poor neighbouring state who declaimed words of judgement from God for the evildoers of Israel. No wonder Amaziah wanted rid of him.

Amos’ justification was simple. God had called him and so he must speak.

The lion has roared, who will not fear; the Lord God has spoken, who can but prophesy.

Amos and the other prophets of his time knew that God called his people to live in justice and peace. The other surrounding peoples also lived unjustly and woe would come upon them. But the people of Israel and Judah had been blessed and chosen by God and so should live accordingly.

Amos denounces in his poetry many injustices. The weights and measures in the marketplaces were false. The poor were treated with contempt by the law-courts. Foreign women were treated as prostitutes.

Amos had a fine ear for satire. The corrupt upper-class women are compared to the fat cows of Bashan. Their husbands’ drunken songs are compared to David’s psalms. Amos’s constant theme is that the powerful people are corrupt and care for nothing but their own pleasure and increased wealth. Their poorer compatriots, equally heirs of God’s promise, are fit only for oppression and exploitation. Since that is how they treat God’s covenant, God will destroy them and their whole society.

It is much easier and more comfortable for us to assume that such corruption, inequality and contempt for others, if it exists today at all, characterises only other distant ‘third-world’ societies and not our own. Following the media, as well as living and working in central London, means the daily observing massive inequality and contempt for others, and wondering at the corruption, legal or otherwise, at home or elsewhere. Such observation is usually an uncomfortable option.

A desire for justice and peace; for a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources; a longing for a more compassionate society — these are themes common to many people of good will, of many faiths and none. Indeed they are part of what it really means to be a human being.

In the gospel Jesus sends out his disciples to preach repentance. They are to live a simple life (without a spare tunic!). This simplicity of life, having only what is needful, is a powerful sign of the message of God’s love and of the call to conversion that the disciples preach. It has been and still is part of many forms of the religious life, including Dominican. By the preaching of the apostles and those called to mission today, evil is driven out, the sick are healed and a new community is formed and re-formed.

We, the Church, are that new community. We have listened to the Word of God and rejected injustice, rejected contempt for others, rejected evil. We have sought what is true and have attempted to follow ways of peace. We have rejected the allure of material prosperity at the expense of others.

This is what we should be as Church. However we don’t always live up to being who we should be. So God may send us prophets, as he sent Amos and others, long ago. They may come from inside the Church community or from outside, and we will certainly feel uncomfortable with their message.

Uncomfortable because it rings true — it challenges us deeply. It calls us to self-examination and conversion of life. Who are the prophets today? What is their message?

Readings: Amos 7:12-15 | Eph 1:3-14 | Mark 6:7-13

fr. Peter Harries is chaplain to the University College London Hospitals NHS Trust.