A biblical idea of justice is often lost to us in our law and order society. Our society’s idea of justice is vastly different from the world of the Hebrew prophets and Amos from Tackoa. The ideal depiction of United States justice used to be that of lady justice or the greek goddess Themis. Themis is shown to hold a scale in her right hand. Measuring the value of a case on her scales Themis also often holds a double edged sword in her left hand. These two edges represent the sharp edges of justice and wisdom. Over Themis’ eyes are a blindfold that represents objectivity. It is the ideal hope of justice in our society.
Although not entirely alien to the world Amos preaches his is a slightly different definition of justice. For Amos justice begins with equality. Inherent in the judaic law is the shared notion of an interwoven society. A person’s vicinity to justice is not an individual moral checklist. For the prophet justice is not located in how the few are thriving, but in being treated equal in community.
Listen to a list theologian Ted Grimsrud has put together of the 4 things Amos chides the Northern Kingdom of Israel. (1) the sale into debt slavery of the innocent and needy; (2) the oppression of the poor; (3) the abuse of poor women; and (4) the exploitation of debtors. It is an amazing list that is no less prophetic today than it was when the prophet roamed Israel.
Yet, there are some conspicuous things absent from that list. There are some things missing that have been the obsession of moralists in the church for centuries. Where are the moral codes, the do’s and don’t’s for individual behavior?
Well, they did already have the law that had been set out for them. So, if they follow the letter of the law they should be okay with God, right? Israel can enjoy their wealth, security and might because they have kept their moral obligations, right?
This is where Amos throws a wrench into their celebration. Amos enters the elegant palace and proclaims it stained in ugly sin. He tells the priests that even though they have record attendance it is disgusting to God. He looks at the politician and and his victorious army and proclaims them weak.
What does God want? We follow the rules? We try to be good boys and girls. I don’t smoke or chew or go with girls who do. What does God want? God wants us to practice justice!
It is not Amos only that reminds us this is an essential message. Justice is embedded in the law, proclaimed by the judges, railed on from the prophets, central to Jesus teaching, preached by Paul, it is central to Peter’s vision and exhorted by James.
It is telling that so many of our Bible believing evangelicals go straight to moral codes of individual behavior and seem to miss this dominant message. Why is it so ignored? Maybe it is because we live so much like the society that Amos preached so long ago. A very few successful people, power consolidated, security assured to the few, a wealthy religious class and everything functioning quite well. For some the trains always run on time. Amos peels back the layers of that idyllic world of a few to see that it is based on a basic misunderstanding of a community’s relationship to God.
Amos does not deny that their worship is going well. The silver is polished just right. The important people are showing up for festivals and paying their money to the temple. Amos’ radical claim is that all Israel’s prosperity, security, individual wealth, religious participation has nothing to do with God’s grace bestowed on them. They can not rely on success as a measure of God’s presence in their midst if it is not equal, if it is based on an unjust community. Amos tells Israel the chilling reality: God is more than merely indifferent to your religious practices, God is reviled, disgusted by them.
Here is the lesson for today. Justice is not a byproduct of supposed moral behavior. It is the beginning, middle and end of communities who claim to be in a covenant with God. As Micah reminds us, we do justice. It is the essential ingredient in getting right with the almighty. As long as our neighbors housing is threatened, as long as payday lenders exploit, as long as student loans cripple, as long as the homeless huddle under overpasses, as long as children go hungry, as long as women fear violations to their bodies, as long as only part of our society fills jails, as long as teeth rot for lack of dental access, as long as an elderly person dies alone in the summer heat God will care little for our prayers and sacrifices.
In a church whose theology sadly parrots capitalism this will be a challenging word. Starting with justice for the least to be a successful Christian will never make your book a bestseller in the self help section. Let me assure you though that it is a much more rewarding path to the divine. The gifts of seeing equality amongst all God’s creature is a liberating act. It will save us from the petty selfishnesses that the shallow spiritualities of success bring. It will bring us together in a stronger unity than we have ever known and will grow the community that is worth living in. Let Justice Roll!