Last week Jonathan and I made a summer pudding. It’s the first one I’ve ever made, it was wonderful – a bit sloppy but packed full of sweet juicy delicious berries. Summer fruit is such a treat and a blessing.
It was in the time of Amos too. If you had a basket of summer fruit, like the one he describes in verse 1 of our reading, then it meant you were doing alright. If you could afford to spare land for fruit bushes, and the time to tend them, then you were comfortably off, not scrabbling to get by. Those who were poor would use all their patch of land to grow the essentials of life: wheat and barley. They couldn’t aspire to fruit.
So when the 8th century BC prophet Amos describes Israel as being like a basket of summer fruit, it tells us a bit about that society. We know from history that the Northern Kingdom in those days was doing well. The neighbouring superpowers, Egypt and Assyria, were too preoccupied with internal issues to cause problems. Israel’s King Jeroboam had crushed his old enemy, the Syrians. There was a peace dividend: stability gave rise to wealth and an affluent society.
But wealth brings its own dangers. In his book on the English Countryside Oliver Rackham relates how the most difficult times for nature, the times of greatest habitat loss, have not been when everyone is poor and scraping a living. You might think desperately poor peasants would cut down woods and burn heaths in an attempt to use every last bit of land. But actually the times of greatest ecological danger have been the times of national wealth – when trees have been felled for grandiose building projects and industrial charcoal.
When people have wealth, they often want more. Money can easily accumulate in the hands of a few. Across many societies, historic and present-day, we see the same pattern: an increasing division between the haves and the have-nots. Many benefit from rising levels of income but some are left behind. It was like that in Amos’ time and he speaks up with the passion of God for the poor.
God is a God of justice and he sees. In verse 5 God hears the merchants saying ‘When will the Sabbath be over so that we can offer wheat for sale?’ Sounds familiar? In the UK Sunday trading laws were recently under pressure. Large stores said changes would raise another £1.5 billion. But for whom? Who gets to share it? And at what cost? Shop assistants feared they would be forced to work all hours, and not have a special day with the family. In the end Conservative backbenchers, Labour and the SNP decided it was too great a cost for society.
In Amos’ time the traders wanted the religious festival to end so that they could make money, especially by cheating the poor. V.5 describes a market scene – the merchant is measuring out the grain but his jug is a small measure. When the customer comes to pay and weighs out silver on the scales, the weight the merchant uses is overheavy – the customers are paying more for less. In the end the poor resort to selling their children into slavery, which is what verse 6 describes, in order to feed themselves on the poor quality sweepings of the wheat.
Nowadays those who have less can often lose more because of their lack of economic power. For instance, the Citizens Advice Bureau recently found that people who buy their electricity with a coin operated meter are much more likely to be on low incomes, but spend about £200 a year more than people paying by direct debit. Of course, they’re paying for predictability, but it doesn’t help them escape the poverty trap.
Part of the answer will be for those of us who are better off to use our spending power responsibly. The decisions we make can change the situation for people many miles away. Have you ever researched your favourite clothes shops online to find out what their ethics are? Would you change your shop on that basis? What are conditions like for the people who make our electronic goods? Traidcraft are currently running a campaign about some FTSE 100 copper miners and the impact of their operations on local villages. Which company we invest in matters.
God cares about all these things. It may sound like politics, but politics comes down to everyday life, and so does faith. God is a God of justice who longs for people to be treated fairly. The picture of God that the Bible reveals to us is a God of love, and love hates it when people are hurt. Jesus shows us the passion of God when he cleanses the temple of the cheating traders.
Sometimes cleansing is what is needed. Sometimes the situation is so bad that society has to start again with a clean slate. That’s why Amos describes a basket of fruit – it has a double meaning. Yes, fruit represents affluence. But in Hebrew the word for fruit also sounds like the word for ‘end’. And as God says in verse 2, the end has come upon my people Israel. God will not pass by their injustice any longer.
Verse 8 may be referring to an earthquake, as the ground rises and falls like a river. Verse 9 sounds like very much like an eclipse. Amos sees these as signs of upheaval; natural phenomena which act as symbols of disaster to come. Just thirty years later, Assyria invaded Israel and Amos’ words were fulfilled. What seemed so unlikely came to pass.
Their religion did not protect them. Instead, in verse 10, their feasts were turned into mourning and their songs into lamentation. Elsewhere in his book, Amos tells us that outward religion flourished at that time. The people loved their seasonal celebrations. Feast days were well attended. The places of worship were well maintained. But it was only an outward form.
Amos criticises religion which makes no difference to its adherents’ behaviour. Real faith changes lives. The Israelites thought they were in a privileged position before God – instead their special relationship brought special responsibility too. Anyone who claims to follow the God of the Bible must take his passion for justice seriously.
If we do not, we run the same risk that Amos describes in v.11. There will be a famine, not of bread or water, but of the Word of the Lord. Amos says that anyone who persistently hardens their conscience eventually loses it. A society that always ignores God’s voice eventually loses the ability to hear it, and perhaps even loses the people who will proclaim it.
So our Old Testament reading challenges us to take justice seriously. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had seemed wealthy, at peace. But that affluence masked deep divisions in society, and without God’s protection it collapsed. Amos warns us that nations reap what they sow. Wealth will not benefit our society if not everyone has a stake in it. People who feel excluded turn to the extremes and a divided society cannot stand.
But there is hope here. Why would Amos write if he did not hope that things could change? Why bother if disaster could not be averted? Whenever the Bible speaks of judgement it does so so that its hearers may repent. It is too late for Amos’ original audience, but who knows how future generations might respond? Let us then ask God to show us how we can make a better, fairer world.