The Voice of a Stranger

The Voice of a Stranger

Twenty-Sixth Sunday of the Year. Fr Gordian Marshall preaches on the prophet Amos.
Amos was a foreigner – up from the south, from the rough hills in Judea. Yes, things were tough down there. Amos wasn’t used to the fertile areas of the northern kingdom of Israel, where it was possible to produce food in comparative plenty.

But why should he come north and start criticising people for enjoying what God had given them? After all, they had worked to produce what they had. Why shouldn’t they enjoy it? Was this southerner just jealous that he and his neighbours didn’t have as much? Did he expect them to cut back on their standard of living and send food parcels to the other tribes in the south?

Well, yes, he may have agreed that that was a more equitable way of doing things, sharing wealth around between north and south. And that is a question that is as relevant in the world today as it was when Amos was making a nuisance of himself nearly three thousand years ago. Perhaps the only thing that has changed since Amos’ time is that what we understand by north and south covers much vaster territories than he could have imagined.

But that wasn’t what Amos seems to have been talking about. When he talked about why he began to speak as a prophet (7:15), he didn’t say that he was conscious of the needs of his people in the south and felt that he had to go looking for international aid agreements. He spoke as if he had very reluctantly come to the conclusion that he had to go north to speak to the people of Israel about their own needs.

Why couldn’t they see for themselves what they needed? What could an outsider see that they didn’t already know and understand better?

First, an outsider can often come with a more open mind, not restricted by the investment of time and energies that weds people to solutions.

Secondly, the outsider can ask questions about things which the insider takes for granted. That’s why, for example, a married couple may go to a guidance counsellor to help them to see their own situation through fresh eyes.

But, thirdly, it could just be that the voice of the stranger is the voice of God.

It is possible to look at the prophecy of Amos, the outsider, and try to translate all his comments and criticisms of the kingdom of Israel into their equivalent in our world. But it may be of more value to learn to listen to the outsiders of today.

We can very likely say, with complete justification, that because they are outsiders they don’t really understand why we do things in the way we do. They may not appreciate the history we have, the responsibilities we feel, the constraints we are under.

But the role of the prophet is to highlight where things are going wrong. It is not to provide all the answers or solutions. God’s interventions in our lives are usually only to point the way. The work remains for us to do. We have the responsibility to decide how we respond.

Listening to Amos today is listening to how people see us; how our families or our work colleagues have to cope with us; how refugees experience their life on our housing estates; how our church communities are seen by those who have felt themselves excluded and let down – the list could go on endlessly.

What was remarkable about Amos was that he spoke out aloud in spite of the opposition he met.

You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel and do not preach against the house of Isaac.'(7:16)

But Amos would not be silenced.

There are many strident voices around today that are easy enough to hear, and often to dismiss, but we need to have sharp hearing to pick up the voice of God from the quiet whispers of those whose experience of constant rejection makes them hesitant to speak aloud.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us! It wad frae mony a blunder free us.” (Robert Burns)

Readings: Amos 6:1,4-7 | 1 Tim 6:11-16 | Luke 16:19-31

fr. Gordian Marshall was the superior of the Dominican community in Glasgow for many years, and a member of the Editorial Board of He died on 14th December 2007. May he rest in peace.