About 780 years before Christ a young man called Amos was taking care of sheep and tending sycamore trees in Judah when God unexpectedly called him to be a prophet. He had to denounce both Israel and Judah for their idolatry and injustice in such strong terms that he found himself expelled by the priest in charge of the royal sanctuary of Bethel. This in itself was a great crime. Imagine forbidding a prophet to speak God’s word in God’s house! It would be like getting angry when a priest mentions from the pulpit the teaching of the Church on contraception, abortion, the Sunday Mass obligation, mortal sin, or the need for the sacrament of Reconciliation.
It showed to what depths the faith of Israel had fallen and because of its sins Amos foretold its downfall and the captivity of the people.
Today we hear, for the second week, a small selection from the prophet Amos in our first reading. Written almost three thousand years ago its warning is as applicable and valid today as it was all those centuries ago.
Amos condemns the rich and powerful in language that seeks them out and ‘captures’ them in the very acts of their self-indulgence. The effect is much like that of a video camera at a wild party with an accompanying commentary full of biting scorn.
‘Woe’ cries Amos, casting his prophet’s eye on those ensconced so snugly in Zion and to those who feel so safe on the mountain of Samaria. His cry is both a lament and a warning.
The phrases are carefully chosen – ‘ensconced so snugly’ – ‘feel so safe’ – and Amos shows himself contemptuous of the blind self-assurance of the rich which allows them to live in the silly delusion of safety.
And how do they live?
Lying on ivory beds and sprawling on their divans, they dine on lambs from the flock, and stall-fattened veal; they bawl to the sound of the harp, they invent new instruments of music like David, they drink wine by the bowlful, and use the finest oil for anointing themselves…
The prophet’s camera does not lie – ivory beds, divans, lambs, stall-fattened veal, harps, wine by the bowlful, finest oil. And the rich, what are they doing? – lying, sprawling, dining, bawling, drinking, anointing. Not a very flattering report, is it?
There are several judgments implicit in the prophet’s description of the rich.
Firstly, their lives are dissipated. Not only do they spend their time intemperately wining and dining but there seems to be no evidence of spiritual concern; the preoccupation with material pleasures is total.
Secondly, their lifestyle is one of degradation. It is no surprise that those who feast on fine food and consume wine by the bowlful should end up sprawling and bawling. How ironic that those who think themselves superior to others are unmasked as bereft of any personal dignity.
Amos leaves his most biting condemnation till last. All the self-indulgent carousing of the rich which he has portrayed so vividly is suddenly placed within the context of a nation in imminent danger of total destruction.
But about the ruin of Joseph (i.e. Israel) they do not care at all.
What a terrible indictment! And no wonder the Lord in his mercy moved to restore the situation. Amos bluntly pronounced the Lord’s judgment: That is why they will be the first to be exiled; the sprawlers' revelry is over. Deportation.
Many such warnings were given the Chosen People over a long period of time but they would not listen. They polluted the Promised Land with their idolatry and disobedience until finally the Lord intervened. They were taken captive by the pagan nation to their north and their Temple and Holy City were razed to the ground.
Is there a lesson for modern Australia in this scripture? Is there a lesson for the Catholic Church? Is there a lesson for you personally in this reading?