Lenten Journey of Justice series: “Enough is Enough”
Scripture Reading: Amos ch 3
In my Quaker Values class at William Penn University I do an exercise to introduce the students to the concept of privilege. In the exercise I put down a line of tape and have the students all start in the same place with their feet on the line. I ask them around 30 questions about how they experience the world, including things like whether or not their parents had to work nights and weekends to support them, whether or not they have to adjust their life so as not to end up victims of sexual violence, if English was the primary language spoken in their home, and even if they were born in America.
They respond to each question by either staying in the same place, stepping forward, or stepping back. Invariably at the end of the exercise in the extremes are almost always a white male and a black female. As the students become arrayed in the social pecking order of this world I ask them why they think the world receives them so differently, and how it would be possible to have such different experiences. I do this because I want them to see privilege, not as something to feel guilty about, but as something that has a profound impact on their lives, and as something for the most part they have no control over. They do not choose how the world will receive them.
When you learn to recognize privilege for what it truly is, it is only then that you start thinking about how you benefit from it, it is only then that you have the choice to accept it as the way of the world and continue to benefit from it, or to reject it as something far from God’s heart and start to challenge it.
As a person who cares about peace and justice I often notice how politicized the discussion about it has become. It seems everyone wants peace and justice, but few people agree about how to go about getting it. But God’s people of old were a covenant people, they were the people who knew God and walked with him. They were the people who saw justice, not merely as a political struggle but as something stemming from who God is, His very character and nature.
Helder Camara famously said “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
It is so peculiar to me how we can read so many bible verses about taking care of the widow, the orphan, and seeking justice for the oppressed and yet still fight so much about how to do it more than we actually do it. We debate the role of government. We fight about theories of economics. Yet there is virtually no question that God calls His people to work for equity and justice, to look out for the vulnerable taking refuge here from other countries. To not let the income of people pervert justice. To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give aid the widow and fatherless.
While many things are different about Amos’ time than our own, two things haven’t changed: the heart of God, and the readiness of God’s people to grow complacent about sharing God’s love with those least likely to offer us anything in return.
This Lent we are tracing a thread of God’s justice through the Old and New Testaments. I felt led to start writing a devotional series of various scripture readings that show God’s heart for justice, stemming from the Sinai Covenant, echoing through the prophets and parables and the writings of Paul, and ultimately finding their answer in Jesus’ death on the cross.
So often we look at the gospel story as a story of personal salvation and private faith, but without understanding God’s heart for justice we are only getting two dimensions of a three dimensional Gospel. Without an accurate understanding of the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry and message—and an Old Testament understanding of the heart of God— one can miss how the atoning sacrifice of Jesus connects to the justice of God. This lent we are slowly building toward the fulfillment of God’s justice as portrayed by Jesus’ as the Suffering servant of Isaiah 53.
It has been said that people struggle to understand the righteousness of God, to wrap their minds around the terminology of righteousness. But in Hebrew tzedek and mishpat, the terms for justice and righteousness, are so closely related that they are almost interchangeable in many cases. Almost to the point that if you hear a sentence that talks about the righteousness of God, you can change that out in your mind to the Justice of God, and sometimes that really helps with understanding.
Psalm 103 gives one of the fullest Old Testament pictures of the identity of God, the heart of Yahweh revealed at so many points in the Hebrew Scriptures.
“8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
15 The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
17 But from everlasting to everlasting
the LORD’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children—
18 with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.
19 The LORD has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.”
Slow to anger does not mean God will never be angry. God letting generational sin echo through people’s lives seems strange to us, but one can see that God’s punishment is far overshadowed by God’s mercy to the thousandth generation. The overwhelming emphasis here is on grace, but even God at times—in the face of injustice—decides that enough is enough, and His people perverting justice and taking advantage of the marginalized is right up there with idolatry in its offensiveness. Injustice and oppression are sure signs that the people claiming a relationship with God couldn’t be farther from the heart of God.
Let’s look now at these harsh words that the prophet Amos brought to his people in chapter 3. The Lord says:
“You only have I chosen
of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you
for all your sins.”
This seems so contrasting, but the emotion behind this judgment is almost mourning. “You only have I known” points to the covenant. It points to the people who have intimate knowledge of who God is and His desire for how His people should live. Without a doubt, they should “know better.” And one should keep in mind that it is to a covenant people who should know better that God is speaking… Just as Jesus would later save His harshest criticisms for the religious hypocrites of His day, God holds His people to a high standard from their abuses. The exile is a harsh punishment, perhaps the harshest punishment God’s people would ever face, but it is to a people who knew full well the character and nature of God—who knew full God’s heart for the marginalized, and who knew full well that they were turning away from the true God in their idolatry—that God would say through the prophet Amos effectively that, “enough is enough.”
Amos goes on to say
“Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing
without revealing his plan
to his servants the prophets.”
And this helps us understand that it is to a people who had been warned that God is speaking, a people who heard the message of God’s prophets that “enough was enough” and were not afraid of God’s patience running out. Not only had they known better, they had been reminded that they knew better and it fell on deaf ears and bounced off callous hearts.
The understanding of a “faithful remnant remaining” was a common theological theme in the Old Testament, but Amos uses some creative terminology to describe this remnant as “worse for the wear,” saying the remnant will be so tattered all that is left are scraps like “two leg bones and piece of an ear,” the head of a bed, or just one scrap of fabric leftover from whole couch.
The exile would be coming and it would be a time of great pain and sorrow. Unfortunately the only way the people would learn from their oppression would to experience it for themselves at the hand of a pagan nation. While the people lived in luxurious houses of ivory, and thought they were protected by God and insulated by their wealth, they were in for a big surprise. God had given them both the choice and the warning in Deuteronomy 30, to choose the path of life over the path of death. God pleaded with them to choose life, but unfortunately the people had made the other choice. So now their richly decorate houses would be destroyed, their land would be taken away. The house of worship at Bethel in Samaria would be destroyed, even the horns of the altar—an honored place of asylum one could cling and have their lives spared before their enemies—would be cut off. There would be nowhere to run, no place left to be safe.
What do we take away from this in our day, in our time? In a world where we are the most privileged people on the planet and benefit so greatly from a globalized economy that sows the seeds of oppression in the world? In the online devotionals this week I posted a video about Rana Plaza in Bangledesh, known for the most deadly accident ever in the textile industry in 2013. How the accident came to be was that due to frequent power outages that cost money, massive generators were put on the roof of an 8 story building that was not engineered to support all that weight, nor probably the thousands of people and equipment it housed. As the power went off and the generators kicked on for the last time, the vibrations were finally were too much for the building to take, causing the 8 story building to collapse and killing over 13,000 garment workers.
Now you and I are not directly responsible for this tragedy, like in the privilege exercise, it is not something we should just feel guilty about or would have wanted. But as a people who want our country to be blessed we should acknowledge that the patience of God toward injustice is not endless. We should acknowledge that the heart of God for the poor and marginalized has been made plain to us. And we should acknowledge that it doesn’t have to take an exile before God’s people can listen to the voices crying out for justice. And that no amount of luxurious housing, no amount of money, and no amount of political rhetoric or military forces could truly protect us, if we cross the idolatrous line of becoming isolated from the suffering of the world, deaf to cries for justice, and callous toward those marginalized by society.
The prophet Amos brought a wake up call to the people of God. It was not popular or politically correct, but seldom do softened words cut through the selfishness of God’s people. Jesus tied loving God to loving your neighbor, and true Christianity can never be just between God and your soul. It can never be worship without witness. And we, as the people of God, should know better… for we are the people with the greatest revelations of the heart and character of God, we are the people striving for ears to hear God’s word to us, we are the people bound to God by a covenant calling us to choose life, and to walk tenderheartedly in obedience. It is up to us to open our ears and eyes and hearts to the suffering of the forgotten people Jesus died to save, and it is up to us to let our hearts be broken for the things that break the heart of God. That much at least is our responsibility.