Commentary on Amos 5:14-15, 21-24
Today we have another appeal for people to act with a sense of justice. The passage begins with a rather generalised exhortation to “seek good and not evil”. To “seek good” is, of course, to seek the source of all Good, God himself and to stay away from everything that is contrary to his nature.
Then we can truly claim that “the Lord, the God of hosts” is with us. God, in a sense, is everywhere, in and through everything but for him to be fully in me, my heart must be fully open for him to enter and for me to experience the power of his love. And, if we do genuinely try to seek him, then he will truly be with us. But how that is to be done is yet to be spelt out by the prophet.
That spelling out begins when Amos says that to “hate evil and do good” means, among other things, to “let justice prevail at the gate”. In the cities of the time, local government functioned in the large open space inside the city’s gate. The implication is that justice does not always prevail. But only if the ‘remnant of Joseph’ can behave consistently with justice will they experience the Lord’s compassion. The ‘remnant of Joseph’ refers to those from the tribe of Joseph who are still remaining in the Northern Kingdom after it has been depleted by successive punishments from Yahweh, through the instrumentation of various invaders. This is the first mention of the ‘remnant’ of Israel in the prophets.
There is an implication that a change even now would benefit the individual survivors of the disaster, though the nation as a whole was doomed to perish.
In the second half of the reading, to make sure that there is no misunderstanding about what seeking good and seeking God entails, Yahweh, in the prophet’s name, denounces the plethora of feasts and liturgical festivals scattered throughout the year.
It is an attack against identifying religious with rituals and liturgical practices. The prophets often attack religious hypocrisy, the conviction that all is well, provided external forms like sacrifice and fasting are observed, even when the most elementary principles of social justice and neighbourly love are neglected. The Psalms lay emphasis on the inner dispositions that must lie behind acceptable sacrifice: obedience, gratitude, contrition; the Books of Chronicles, too, insist on the part played in sacrificial worship by the liturgical chant as an expression of inward sentiments; these authors also protest against a religion of mere form.
The Christian Testament will formulate the distinction even more definitively. In attacking the Pharisees who laid great emphasis on external ritual and the cleanliness of vessels used even in ordinary eating, Jesus had said: “Give what is in your cups and plates to the poor, and everything will be ritually clean for you” (Luke 11:41-42). “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only those who do what my Father in heaven wants them to do” (Matt 7:21). John too, in speaking with the Samaritan woman tells her that true worship is not in a particular place but only in Spirit and truth (John 4:21-24).
Amos puts it in even stronger language: “I hate, I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities.” These verses summarise and reject the current practice of religion in Israel. The institutions were not wrong in themselves; it was the worshippers and the way they worshipped that were wrong. The people had no basis on which to come to God, because their behaviour reflected disobedience of his law. What value then could be given to empty ritualistic practices?
Examples given are ‘cereal offerings’, samples of the harvest offered in thanksgiving; ‘stall-fed peace offerings’, specially fattened cattle also offered as thanksgiving for good herds and flocks; ‘noisy songs’ and ‘melodies of your harps’ accompanying the liturgical rites. On their own, these are of little value although there are many who believe that participation in these activities is equivalent to holiness and union with God.
But the only real holocaust the Lord wants is that “justice surge like water and goodness like an unfailing stream”. These are the prerequisites for acceptance by God but they are what Israel is rejecting. Justice is to flow like a never-failing stream in contrast to river beds that are dry much of the year. As plant and animal life flourishes where there is water, so human life flourishes where justice and righteousness are constantly practised.
On the one hand, it would be quite wrong to deduce from this reading that we go to the other extreme and to think that, provided we are engaged in acts of love and justice, we can dispense with all liturgical rites, that we can forget about our Sunday Eucharistic celebration.
On the other hand, there is a real danger that we can measure our service of God by our regular attendance at Mass, even daily Mass, and the regular saying of certain prayers or involvement in certain devotions and novenas. “He is a very good Catholic; he is a daily communicant.” That will only be true if, first of all, there is a genuine participation in a community-centred liturgy and, secondly, if church attendance is part of a life totally dedicated to the living of the Gospel, especially those parts of the Gospel which call for personal involvement in serving the needs of those around us and, indeed, of people in other parts of the world too, who are in need of any kind.
The sacramental liturgy plays an absolutely central role in our Christian lives but only when it is in close dialogue with lives based on love, justice and compassion. Each one reinforces the other.