Grabbing Lapels

By David Baumann

A Reading from Amos 6:1-14

1 Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria, the notables of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel resorts! 2 Cross over to Calneh, and see; from there go to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms? Or is your territory greater than their territory, 3 O you that put far away the evil day, and bring near a reign of violence? 4 Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; 5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; 6 who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! 7 Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

8 The Lord God has sworn by himself (says the Lord, the God of hosts): I abhor the pride of Jacob and hate his strongholds; and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it. 9 If ten people remain in one house, they shall die. 10 And if a relative, one who burns the dead, shall take up the body to bring it out of the house, and shall say to someone in the innermost parts of the house, “Is anyone else with you?” the answer will come, “No.” Then the relative shall say, “Hush! We must not mention the name of the Lord.” 11 See, the Lord commands, and the great house shall be shattered to bits, and the little house to pieces. 12 Do horses run on rocks? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood — 13 you who rejoice in Lo-debar, who say, “Have we not by our own strength taken Karnaim for ourselves?” 14 Indeed, I am raising up against you a nation, O house of Israel, says the Lord, the God of hosts, and they shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi Arabah.

Meditation

Over the years I have heard church people, especially clergy, say that we must always be gentle, kind, and never judgmental. Undoubtedly gentleness, kindness, and not being judgmental are worthy, commendable, Biblical virtues — but “always”? There are times to be stern and even shocking, to grab people’s lapels and shake them; in those times, “gentle and kind” can be a mask for cowardice.

Jesus was alarmingly stern when necessary; he kicked over tables in the temple while wielding a whip. He shouted at religious leaders, calling them “blind guides!” and “whited sepulchers!” The prophets were often stern, like Amos in today’s lesson. And Amos was not even “one of the prophets”; he was called from his normal work of taking care of trees to prophesy to complacent leaders, whose prophets had become unwilling to deliver an urgent, vital message that could not come off as “gentle, kind, and non-judgmental.” To tell leaders that they are sedentary, luxury-loving, tolerant of rank injustice, and ruinous, is far more likely to earn anger and recrimination than thanks for setting them right. It is especially chilling when the message is not a call to repentance, but a grim prediction of looming destruction for having ignored all previous calls to repentance. And yet the true unkindness, the true judgment without mercy, would have been to say nothing, or to whisper when what is needed is to shout.

This lesson is not limited to the time of Amos. Sometimes congregations need it. Sometimes denominations need it. Sometimes individuals need it. Sometimes cultures need it. “Can one plow the sea with oxen?” is Amos’s memorable and insightful image for misguided people thinking they are okay when in fact, having departed from the way of God, they are trying to do something that is both impossible and foolish. How is our time like Amos’s time?

David Baumann served for nearly 50 years as an Episcopal priest in the Dioceses of Los Angeles and Springfield; he retired last year. He has published nonfiction, science fiction, and short stories. Two exuberant small daughters make sure he never gets any rest.

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