Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 17, 2022
Amos 8:1-12 Commentary
The Old Testament is downright chock-full of God’s overweening concern for that traditional triplet of the widows, the orphans, and the resident aliens within Israel. Each group was vulnerable in the ancient Near East. By tradition, Israel was a male-dominated society. Family and inheritance were key factors in a person’s having a stable place in society. Thus, a woman without a husband or a child without parents or a foreigner without any prior claims to land and livelihood could very well have been left high and dry. Precisely because this was so, the Bible over and again emphasizes that the rest of Israelite society had a positive obligation to protect these three groups and all who were poor.
As David Holwerda once put it, the Old Testament makes one thing very clear: God hates poverty and he desires its elimination. But if there is one constant across the spectrum of human history and transcending nearly all cultural boundaries it is greed. The rich have a tendency to want to get more rich and so come up with an endless variety of clever ways by which to protect what they already have while also adding to it all the time. And as often as not in the history of ancient Israel as well as so many cultures since, the way the rich get richer is by squeezing the poor.
Enter the prophet Amos. Amos was the simple, rustic shepherd from Tekoa whose prophetic voice is one of the most eloquent in the Bible. And like most of his fellow prophets, Amos had a clarion call to issue to Israel: God was through with them in no small measure because of how they bought and sold the poor to line their own pockets. It’s not that people had stopped worshiping God. What bothered God the most is that their worship had become rank hypocrisy. They came to the Temple with their hands stained with the blood of the poor and if they couldn’t see that, God did and it sickened him. Amos makes clear that God would prefer people stay home and not try to worship him at all rather than come to worship from the context of such wickedly shady lives of greed and plunder.
Also, as Amos 8 makes clear, they came to the Temple feeling no small amount of impatience. What did people talk about in the narthex after church while sipping their coffee? Commerce. “Can’t wait for the Sabbath to be over because I’ve got lots to sell tomorrow!” “I agree,” someone would reply, “these forced days off from work are a real pain, aren’t they?! Can’t wait to get back to the office tomorrow. I’ve got a new pricing scheme that I’m just itching to put into effect at the open of business tomorrow.”
But it was all a complex set of schemes by which to soak those already impoverished in Israelite society. So at the opening of Amos 8, God gives Amos a dreamlike vision. “What do you see, Amos?” the Lord asked. “Fruit,” Amos replied. In Hebrew the word for “fruit” is qayiz which is spelled almost identically to the word meaning “the end,” which is the Hebrew word qez. In short, this is a wordplay, a pun. Amos sees qayiz and so God declares that indeed, the qez, the end, had come for Israel.
But this pun is more clever than even that. Because the basket of fruit that Amos sees looks luscious and good, the way Israel’s apparently healthy economy looked at that time. What could be better than a strong stock market, excellent profit margins, and savvy marketing schemes by which to boost sales still more? Like a really gorgeous basket of ripe fruit, all of that looks fantastic. But God tells Amos that when such apparent economic “health” is built up on the backs of the poor, what looks great is really death in disguise. We see qayiz but God sees qez; we see an economic boon, God sees a moral boondoggle.
Chillingly, God even gives Amos a glimpse of carnage in, of all places, the very Temple itself. Like the grim carnage we’ve seen too often in the aftermath of a suicide bomber detonating himself in a crowded marketplace, so God envisions his holy Temple as strewn with body parts in the aftermath of destruction. That seems an unlikely image for God himself to beam into a prophet’s imagination. But the fact was that when God looked at the wider Israelite society back then, that was all he could see anyway: a whole culture littered with the corpses and the severed limbs of the poor.
“The business of America is business” and most people don’t dispute that well-known saying. But whether the people to whom we preach are actively recognized as being “in business” or whether they are consumers involved in business in other ways, we all face choices, we all face the issues that a hard-hitting passage like Amos 8 brings into focus for us. The question we face over and again is what drives us?
Boosting the bottom line leads factories to skimp on adhering to environmental laws, dumping as much mercury into rivers as they can get away with. Factories with bad emissions get built next to the poorest neighborhoods in the country, which is why children whose parents are at or below the poverty line have the highest incidence of asthma in the nation. In a thousand ways every day people still do the equivalent of buying the poor with silver and the needy with a pair of sandals. Oil companies run issues of safety right up to the edge, knowing all the while that if something goes wrong on certain oil-drilling rigs (say, ones that are a mile deep in the ocean), they cannot fix what breaks.
Solutions to various problems involving economics and poverty are seldom simple and can even be agonizing. And there can be honest and healthy disagreements, even among people of faith, as to the best way to help people over the long haul. But so long as the protection of the poorest among us is what drives us, even if doing so looks like “bad business” as some would define that, then we are on the right, biblical, Christ-like track.
A sermon on Amos 8 brings many issues into focus for us and in the fraught political climate of 2022 probably there are a thousand ways the preacher can land him- or herself in trouble just now. The challenge is to not blunt the message and yet to convey it in a way that everyone can see themselves in the picture and not just a few. That is no easy task. And again, neither should the preacher pretend the solutions to all of this are easy and certainly there should be no partisan edge (per se) in suggesting to has the answers.
Above all, however, we all need the reminder to be concerned with those for whom God seems to have the most concern. This is a message the church needs to hear again and again.
The whole event lasted less than thirty minutes. Yet within the span of that grisly half-hour, New York City experienced the worst workplace disaster in the nation’s history up to that point. It was March 25, 1911, just before quitting time on the 8th and 9th floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village. The workers in this sweatshop were eagerly getting ready to punch out and change into their best clothes so they could have a little fun out on the town that Saturday evening. But just as people were beginning to gather their things, the cry was heard: “Fire!” Thirty minutes later 146 people would be dead, most of them young immigrant women who worked six days a week to earn a meager income making the then-popular shirtwaists worn by fashionable women all around the country.
Although safety features were available already in 1911, the fact is that the Triangle factory had no sprinkler system. The building’s outside fire escapes were also hard to get to and were so flimsy that one of them collapsed as people fled down it, hurling them back into the burning building and roasting them alive. Those who fled toward one side of the building were mostly able to get out but those unlucky enough to have chosen the other direction found the door to the stairwell locked from the other side. They were trapped. Most of the people who died ended up huddled in front of 9th story windows and they chose to jump to their deaths on the concrete sidewalk below rather than burn.
The aftermath of the Triangle fire was the codifying of most of the workplace safety laws that remain on the books to this day. Indeed, there would never be another workplace disaster this bad until that day ninety years later that we now refer to as 9/11. But according to David Van Drehle in his book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, this was not simply an unavoidable tragedy. Although the factory’s two owners managed to prevail in some lawsuits that were eventually brought against them, there is strong evidence that their greed and shady business practices directly contributed to the deaths of those 146 people.
Why was a stairwell door locked? Because the owners wanted to force their workers to leave through just one door each day so that their purses could be inspected to make sure no one was taking home any scraps of lace or fabric. When pressed at the trial, one of the owners admitted that what little the employees might try to take home probably wouldn’t amount to much more than $15 worth of stuff per year. But to save even that measly amount, the owners kept doors locked and so endangered lives.
And why wasn’t there a sprinkler system? Well, sprinkler systems put out fires but what if an occasional fire is good for business? In the years leading up to the Triangle disaster, Van Drehle notes that the Triangle factory had a suspiciously high number of smaller fires. The fires happened after hours and no one was ever hurt. But the funny thing was that such fires tended to happen quite soon after the winds of fashion had changed. What is a factory owner to do if what had been all the rage in Paris last season is suddenly passé and yet you’ve got piles of just such dresses in your factory? Conveniently timed fires have a way of getting rid of such useless stuff even as the insurance company nicely compensates you for your “loss.” A sprinkler system might just have been bad for business.
It says a lot about our God that so much of his revelation to the ancient Israelites had to do with what could be called fair business practices. Liberation theologians in the twentieth century talked often about what they termed the “preferential option for the poor.” It is not enough, theologians like Gustavo Guiterrez wrote, to set up a society where everyone has an equal chance to get ahead in life. Truly just societies must also go out of their way to make sure that those who are already poor and marginalized are not further exploited and are actively helped.
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