Overlooked Themes in Amos
by Mark Gutman
No Sabbath School lesson or sermon or article can cover everything about its topic. Newspapers and radio and TV must choose some items to report and ignore most. Sometimes we benefit from noticing what was not reported. The Boston Marathon bombing that killed three (and injured another 282) has been covered extensively by U.S. media, while the Bangladesh building collapse that killed more than 800 people quickly disappeared from the news. The less-publicized Bangladesh disaster, though, brought to our attention a problem that more publicity could help. 
As I worked my way through the recent Sabbath School lessons on Amos, I wondered which verses or themes would be featured and which would be ignored. Not surprisingly, “Prepare to meet thy God” was highlighted, along with “held accountable,” “punishment will result if these obligations are not fulfilled,” and “a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.” Social justice was also mentioned: “God’s concern about the just and compassionate treatment of less privileged.”
Unfortunately, the quarterly didn’t promote specific actions, other than a blasé mention of “help the needy.” The lack of specifics leaves the idea of “social justice” as easy to breeze past. If we donate money for church budget, which covers community service, we’ve probably covered social justice, right? Besides, we don’t want to forget that our main need is to spread the gospel, and social issues can get us sidetracked.We boil the justice and righteousness that God wants (Amos 5:24) down to punishing bad people (“justice”) and staying out of trouble ourselves (“righteousness”).
In Speaking Christian, Marcus Borg, quoting Amos 5:21-24, explains that “righteousness and justice are often synonyms in the Bible.” In Amos, he tells us, “justice and righteousness are equivalent terms."  He elaborates: “But justice in the Bible most often means much more than this [i.e., retributive justice or punitive justice], indeed something quite different. When the Bible speaks of God’s passion for righteousness and justice, it does not mean that God’s primary passion is the punishment of wrongdoers. . . . Often justice and righteousness refer to the way ‘the world,’ the social order that humans create, should be. It can be – and most often is – unjust, shaped by the wealthy and powerful in their own self-interest. God’s dream, God’s passion is for a different kind of world. This kind of justice is not punitive justice, but distributive justice – the fair distribution of the material necessities of life.”
Our concern for justice often fails to show much interest in the problems of the have-nots, a group that is not equipped to shape the social order more their way. The problems that Amos and other Bible prophets spoke out against still exist. Over the last few decades the problems have worsened.Wealth and income are increasingly concentrated in the top 1% (or even the top 0.1%),  and the safety net that helps those with less wealth and income is shrinking.
There is a tendency for the “haves” to conclude that people who aren’t rich have only themselves to blame. After all, anyone with some drive can find a way to move up the financial ladder. Lack of material wealth is often considered to be an indication of spiritual or moral poverty as well. Helping such people will teach them to be dependent on handouts instead of digging deep and learning to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. So people who are doing well in the current economic setup post comments on Facebook and other social networking sites that decry such programs as welfare and Obamacare.
The welfare program and Obamacare are not perfect. Far from it. They are attempts to help those who are struggling. I’ve seen several posts on Facebook that cheer the problems of those systems, apparently hoping that they’ll be shut down. I don’t remember seeing posts that show concern for poor people or people who are unable to get good medical care.It is easy to forget that many people were brought up in poverty and are unable to find good work. Millionsmore (in the U.S.) are uninsurable or have medical bills that have ruined them financially.
Wealthy people generally are not short of insurance or good medical care, and poor people have little lobbying ability. Who is going to lobby for those who can’t? Ones who are doing just fine without welfare and Obamacare may have concerns about losing some of their “just fine” if others get help. “Let them work for it the way I did.”Rags-to-riches stories become weapons to attack people who haven’t also pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. People who don’t pull themselves out of their financial problems are obviously not very spiritual or savvy or motivated.
The Matthew 25 picture of the last judgment shows good people as the ones who were helping others. The Good Samaritan story gets across the same message. But we must be realistic. Matthew 25 and the Good Samaritan are not “hot” topics. They’re yawners. They don’t draw clicks. They don’t stir people up. They don’t get viewers or sell for advertisers. If you want a crowd to attend your meeting, use Daniel, Revelation, Genesis, vegetarianism, or even women’s ordination. Don’t waste your time with the topic of helping your neighbor. The church and the government can take care of that, provided they don’t do too much.
The squeaky wheels get the grease. In 2012 I used that line in a column about health matters. If liquor and tobacco receive all the focus of health presentations, people who don’t exercise or sleep enough won’t recognize how they’re hurting themselves. If theology and last-day events are the main promotion, concern for hurting human beings can be overlooked without much twinge of conscience.
“As I worked my way through the recent Sabbath School lessons on Amos, I wondered which verses or themes would be featured and which would be ignored.” We can do the same exercise in our approach to life. What are we missing? In Matthew 23, Jesus told the Pharisees that they were majoring in minors, leaving out what really mattered: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. The Message Bible, reflecting Borg, renders that as “fairness and compassion and commitment” (23:23). Most of the time I’ve read or heard Matthew 23:23 quoted, it’s to emphasize that we’re supposed to tithe. But Jesus was saying that the Pharisees were big on tithing and low on fairness and compassion.
If we’re not careful we end up imitating the Pharisees. Big on doctrine and talk and criticism; low on concern and action for those who need it. And the less that sermons and articles mention the problem, the less likely anything is to be done about it. It is easy to spend time confirming our biases and never noticing that people need our help.You may have stayed out of jail, but what are you doing about helping your unemployed neighbor find decent medical care. We may not be legislators who can pass major legislation, but we can find ways to help bring about a “justice and righteousness” that actually helps those who don’t have lobby power. As Amos and Jesus requested.
2. Marcus Borg.Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – and How They Can Be Restored.(New York: HarperOne, 2011), 136.