Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
Like everything else in human life, ancient prophecy was organized. Prophetic groups, both Jewish and gentile, roamed the ancient east as the last millennium before Christ began. They developed their own symbols, dress and customs, and were especially given to prophetic trances. Out of these raptures they made oracular, cryptic remarks.
Modern sociologists suggest that changing times develop these movements in response to turmoil and uncertainty. No one knows the future but prophets speculate about it and advise their contemporaries about what may be coming. In
and Israel (two
separate countries) Yahwist prophets naturally claimed to speak with God’s
authority. But they also feuded with one another, as all coreligionists do, and
then tried to develop ways to discover a true prophet and to discern reliable prophecy.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Judah
Amos was a 9th century BC prophet and a shepherd. A native of
he challenged the Israelites from their shrine at Judah .
He may have prophesied as he came out of an oracular trance but he was not a
dues-paying member of any prophetic guild. Like many people today, he was nostalgic about the past and
pessimistic about the future. He taught that Bethel ,
the northern kingdom, was wandering from the covenant and had lost its way. For
his thanks, the king of Israel drove him out of the country. Israel
In today’s reading, we hear what you would expect any prophet to say: do good, avoid evil; if you do good, expect reward from God; if you do evil, expect punishment.
But, as predictable as that may sound, it’s also sound advice. It is a simple truth that never goes out of style. If good is not always rewarded and evil is not immediately punished, we’re nonetheless better for seeking the ways of justice and mercy. And God has plenty of time to reward virtue and punish wickedness.
Secondly, many people, both religious and irreligious, forget that our God demands justice and mercy of us. Some suppose that if they do religious things, satisfying the cultic demands of religion, God will reward them. Or, conversely, they suppose that if they ignore church and religion in general but get along well enough with their immediate neighbors and intimate family they’re okay with God.
Amos challenges both attitudes. He describes a God who is not so easily satisfied, who is jealous and demanding, expecting not just good-enough but perfection. He wants zeal and piety. He wants his people to go the extra mile, lend both jacket and shirt, write off unpayable debts, and forgive friends and enemies alike. He wants attention – we might call it awareness – all the time. Amos, crabby old soul that he was, knows we can do better; and he speaks for God when he reminds us.
(The statue by David Kochka and plaque are found in New Harmony, IN)