A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

God's Patience Has Its Limits: A Lectionary Reflection on Amos 8:1-12

Amos 8:1-12

God was fed up with his people. In Amos' day the northern kingdom of Israel was prosperous; and in the midst of such an economic boom those who benefited the most from such material wealth assumed that God had blessed them. The problem was that God's blessings were always meant to be shared and that was the last thing the so-called "blessed" were doing. Not only were they not responding to God's generosity with unselfishness toward others, they were using their wealth and the power of influence such wealth brought to turn the powers that be to their favor. God's judgment was soon to come upon them, but they thought their religious devotion would save them. But God was not fooled by Israel's songs of praise. The disconnect between their worship and way of life was obvious. Their desire to go through the motions of required worship in order to get on with their lives resembled today's Sunday morning worshipers in the summer who want to do their "be kind to God hour" as early as possible in order to get out and get on with the rest of their day.

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
   and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, 'When will the new moon be over
   so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
   so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
   and practise deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
   and the needy for a pair of sandals,
   and selling the sweepings of the wheat.' (8:4-6)

The well of God's patience with his people and calling of his people to repent is now bone dry. They have reached the point of no return. Just as God delivered the oppressed Israelites from the hand of Pharaoh centuries before in Egypt, so now God will deliver the oppressed Israelites in Amos' day from the hands of their fellow Israelites.

On that day, says the Lord God,
   I will make the sun go down at noon,
   and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your feasts into mourning,
   and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins,
   and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
   and the end of it like a bitter day. (8:9-10)

God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit. It is fruit from the end of the summer harvest, not its beginning. Howard Wallace writes,
The Hebrew word qayits (related to summer or end of summer fruits) resonates with the word for “end,” qets, implying that for Israel, the end is near. After Amos is shown the basket of ripe summer fruit, the Lord interprets its meaning, through a play on similar sounding words, in an oracle or pronouncement. “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.” There are echoes of God’s protection and presence in the Passover, now withdrawn because of the people’s injustice.
We like to think of God's patience and grace to be without limit. Actually, that is true of the latter, but not the former. It is precisely because of grace that God must judge. If God refused at some point to judge those perpetrating injustice upon the poor and marginalized in the Northern Kingdom, that would ultimately be to visit a continued injustice upon the poor and marginalized. How can a God whose grace is without limit visit his grace upon the most vulnerable while leaving the powers in place that oppress them?

It is an uncomfortable truth, but one necessary to know-- God's judgment is an act of grace and is also redemptive. God must judge, not because God is a mean ogre in the sky just waiting to throw thunderbolts at us the minute we step out of line, but because God loves all of his children and takes a special interest in those who are powerless and vulnerable. There are plenty of passages in the Bible where it is made clear that God will hold accountable those who have power and wealth and how they wield that power and employ their wealth on behalf of others. To deny God's wrath is to deny God's love. Tom Wright observes,
Face it: to deny God's wrath is, at bottom, to deny God’s love. When God sees humans being enslaved – and do please go and see the film Amazing Grace as soon as you get the chance – if God doesn't hate it, he is not a loving God. (It was the sneering, sophisticated set who tried to make out that God didn't get angry about that kind of thing, and whom Wilberforce opposed with the message that God really does hate slavery.) When God sees innocent people being bombed because of someone's political agenda, if God doesn't hate it, he isn't a loving God. When God sees people lying and cheating and abusing one another, exploiting and grafting and preying on one another, if God were to say, 'never mind, I love you all anyway', he is neither good nor loving. The Bible doesn't speak of a God of generalized benevolence. It speaks of the God who made the world and loves it so passionately that he must and does hate everything that distorts and defaces the world and particularly his human creatures. And the Bible doesn't tell an abstract story about people running up a big debit balance in God's bank and God suddenly, out of the blue, charging the whole lot to Jesus. The Bible tells a story about the creator God calling a people through whom he would put the world right, living with that covenant people even when they themselves went wrong, allowing them to become the place where the power of evil would do its worst, and preparing them all through for the moment when, like the composer finally stepping on stage to play the solo part, he would come and take upon himself, in the person of his Son, the pain and shame, yes, the horror and darkness, yes, but also, in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in Paul and Acts and Hebrews and 1 Peter and Revelation, in Ignatius and Irenaeus and Augustine and Aquinas, in Luther and Calvin and Cranmer and Hooker, in Herbert and Donne and Wesley and Watts – he would take upon himself the condemnation which, precisely because he loves us to the uttermost, he must pronounce over that deadly disease we call sin. To deny this, as some would do today as they have for hundreds of years, is to deny the depth and weight of sin and the deeper depth and heavier weight of God’s redeeming love. The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
If God could speak to the church today through one of his prophets, would God look at the influence we have in various venues and consider what we are doing with the "blessings" of our wealth and would God compare us to a basket of late summer fruit?

In God's infinite love and unlimited grace would God's limited patience be nearing its end?

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