Wormwood

By Michael Fitzpatrick

A Reading from Amos 5:6-15

6 Seek the Lord and live,
or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.
7 Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground!

8 The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
9 who makes destruction flash out against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

10 They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins —
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.

14 Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
15 Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

Meditation

Ash Wednesday is often for me a reminder of the bitterness of this world. As I write, the geopolitics between Russia and Ukraine have reached a fevered pitch, and many are expressing outrage at the situation. Under such long shadows of empire and war, I am so thankful for the writings of the prophets that call us back to the longer shadow of the justice of God.

In the midst of political instability, our Creator hardly calls us to be “apolitical.” We are to seek good and hate evil, and in a particularly pregnant phrase throughout our reading, “establish justice at the gate.” The gate refers to the entrance to a city where the vulnerable outside the city walls would come to beg for charity from the passing tradespeople. In times of war, the rural folk could flee inside the walls for protection. The Righteous Judge is quite invested in how those responsible for the gate act on their responsibilities, especially if they “afflict the righteous, take bribes, and push aside the needy.”

It’s easy to read these verses and think that we just need to work harder to build a world where thugs cannot intimidate the vulnerable. Though justice is a work of the people, it ultimately comes from the Righteous Judge. Those who “trample the poor” and steal food from the common storehouse, they will build houses but not live in them, plant vineyards but not drink the wine from their grapes, because the Holy God “makes destruction flash out against the strong.” We’re reminded that evil in this world will be judged, whether or not we succeed in promoting reform. We are to seek justice at the gate, but whether justice appears is always a triumph of the Spirit.

We live in evil times. May we drink the draught of wormwood, and remember how bitter this world becomes when justice is trampled to the ground. Ash Wednesday is a time to remember not only that we are dust, but also how little we can really control. See the world as it is. Taste the bitterness. Seek the Lord and live.

Michael Fitzpatrick is a doctoral student in philosophy at Stanford University. He attends St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, Calif., where he serves as a lay preacher and teacher.

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