Evensong 5th February 2017
Prophecy: Amos and Paul
Prophecy: Amos and Paul
Amos’ strident criticism of his contemporaries has, like Paul’s observations about the gentiles, a depressingly contemporary tone; I have never felt so passionate about current events as I do now, and I think I am not alone in this. There have been disasters and successes before but the trend always seemed to be improvement; the Whig view of history, or my view of progress, has taken a few body blows recently. Where, and how, should the Christian stand in this? I am convinced that each of us, not just those in dog collars or the pulpit has a prophetic role, and without being partisan (although my own view must be fairly obvious) I want to explore what the basis of Christian comment, criticism and encouragement should be.
The prophet must base his remarks, whether they are threats or exhortation on a morality, a system of ethics. What should that system be for us? What is the basis of Christian ethics?
It’s not so clear from the Gospels what Jesus’ system was. In his behaviour he was inclusive, controversially so, and anti-social, or anti-establishment –against that is the prevalent ideas of those in power. The establishment found him dangerous because, among other things he valued those who were not its members. He was sympathetic to the outsiders and socially unimportant. He also disliked hypocrisy –but then who does not? He had some fairly unrealistic ideas about turning the other cheek. He espoused what seemed then and still seems now a pretty irresponsible attitude to prudence suggesting instead that we imitate the care free lilies of the field and birds of the air. He had no time for the family bonds which most of us see as the basis of society and its ethics. These disparate examples do not add up to any sort of system; they were I think, meant more as challenges to contemporary morality, intended to make his audience reflect on what really mattered.
When asked outright what did really matter, what for him summed up the Law, he gave a very conventional answer, quoting Deuteronomy: Loving God with all ones heart and mind and loving one’s neighbour as oneself. Jesus sought to explain, or exemplify, what that meant, and how it did not mean slavish respect for all the accretions of ritual and taboo that grown up around the essential Law. It was not genuinely revolutionary, but of course seemed so to those whose positions depended on the observance of the letter of the Law, and the Status Quo but who did not see the underlying imperatives of that law. Amos and Paul give us, in the passages we have just heard, respectively an insight into that Old Testament morality and its reinterpretation in the light of Jesus death and resurrection.
Amos is fairly typical in his reaction to contemporary society which seems to fall into the same errors age after age and indeed little has changed in the 2,800 years since then; Amos points out the abuse of economic power and the disregard of individuals’ rights. It’s depressingly familiar. For Amos, the reason that this is wrong, is ingratitude. Having listed society’s wrongdoings, Amos continues in God’s voice to recall the actions God has taken to establish and save his people; destroying the Amorites and leading them out of Egypt. The essence of Amos’ and the other prophets’ morality is the Covenant; God will protect and foster his people, fulfilling his promise for them, if they will respect his Law. The origin of this contract is in creation; we are God’s creatures and he will go on creating and caring for us while we acknowledge our reliance on him, which is to acknowledge that it is not our personal interest that matters but the force of His creative love. But we are not automata; we have choice of using our God-given powers for our selfish ends or of using them for his ends and this is what makes us moral beings. What we do matters and has consequences.
Paul was a Jew brought up in this same prophetic tradition and imbued with its thinking, but such was his experience of the risen Christ, that he presents a distinct basis for morality- or apparently distinct. Paul is contending not with aberrant Jews but with gentiles who seem to display, as he paints them, many of the faults of our own age in the demand for instantaneous and superficial satisfaction. These are lives as Paul says, of futility; they lack the sense of any permanent or meaningful dimension; they share nothing of the life that Jesus demonstrates by his death and resurrection. For Paul the basis of morality is the imitation of Christ; we are all capable of being Christ-like, we are not born to live merely a brief physical existence. What we do matters and that is why we should align our thoughts and actions with God’s will and in a word strive to achieve our Christ-like potential.
Essentially, however, Amos’ and Paul’s positions are much the same; for both the origin, explanation, and imperative of morality come from creation. We are creatures of God, made in his image and capable of being like him, and being like his manifestation or Son, as we think of Jesus. The existence of that potential, is what impels us to be good.
And that I suggest should equally be the basis of contemporary prophecy, and the basis of everything said from this and every pulpit, and everything said and done as opportunity arises in our daily lives. Amos was not a prominent person he was a shepherd and dresser of sycamore trees, but he found words. We should perhaps take care; Amos’ style of prophecy requires the charisma of a Paul or the retiring Bishop of London. If we try it we risk being noisy gongs or clashing cymbals, unless we can speak and more importantly, act as Jesus spoke and acted, that is with a love that expresses for other creatures, the love which we experience from God, and that should be the basis of our prophecy. Amen.