Commentary on Amos 8:4-6, 9-12
Today’s reading is part of the “Fourth vision: the basket of ripe fruit”.
Ideally, in a world of great prosperity all should be enjoying its fruits. Experience shows us again and again that that is never the case. The denunciations listed by Amos today have an unpleasantly familiar ring – little has changed.
“When will the new moon be over?”, people used to ask. The new moon, like the Sabbath, brought a halt to all commercial transactions. The question was asked by merchants who could not wait for the holy day (devoted to God) to be over so that they could get back into doing business.
“We will diminish the ephah.” The ephah was a standard of measure, a little more than our bushel. So the merchants fiddle with their measuring instruments of buying and selling. They take advantage of the poor and the lowly and shamelessly exploit them. The lowly can be bought for money (“Everyone has his price”) and the poor for even less, a pair of sandals.
Selling even the “refuse of the wheat” reminds one of how tea merchants discovered that tea-leaf dust could be used for teabags! And only the Lord knows what goes into some of our processed foods these days.
At the same time, today many parts of our world, including “ordinary” people, enjoy a level of prosperity not even dreamed of by the rich in former times. The low income worker in North America, Europe and parts of Asia can have his own house, a car, a television set, a video recorder, a refrigerator, a mobile phone and go abroad for summer holidays. Solomon in all his glory did not enjoy such perquisites!
But we also live in a world where hundreds of millions live at appalling and totally unacceptable levels of poverty, deprivation, malnutrition and starvation. Every few seconds, someone dies of hunger, mostly children.
This cannot last, Amos tells the people in the Northern Kingdom. “I will make the sun set at midday,” says the Lord through Amos. The Day of Yahweh is accompanied by cosmic signs: earthquake, solar eclipse. The later prophets enlarge on this, using conventional imagery that must not be taken literally. Darkness, in every sense of the word, will cover the earth.
Celebrations will become times of mourning and songs become lamentations (“By the waters of Babylon, we sat and wept…” Ps 137). As signs of mourning and loss, people will wear sackcloth and have their heads shaved. People will be reduced to destitution and will lose their only son.
A famine is coming but it is not a famine of food and water. It is a famine for hearing God’s word. People will have no sense of direction, “they will wander from sea to sea”. They will seek the word of the Lord and not find it.
This is just what is happening to many – not least the young – in our affluent world. Many have lost a sense of values, a truly moral sense, a sense of integrity and solidarity as they are caught up in the consumerist world of hedonism and pleasure. “If you like it, do it!” They seek pleasure and enjoyment and are surprised that they cannot find happiness.
They forget that happiness is only for the poor in spirit, for the gentle and compassionate, for those who hunger and thirst for justice, for those who are peacemakers, for those ready to suffer for sake of justice and what is right, for those committed to making God‘s Kingdom a reality in our world.
Until they rediscover these truths they will continue to wander from pleasure to pleasure in a search that has no end. But where are they to find the guiding lights that will point them in the right direction? Where are they to go to find him who is the Light of the World, who is the Way, who is Truth and Life? Is it possible that this might be a responsibility for me?
GOSPEL (Matthew 9:9-13)
The cure of the paralytic is immediately followed by the call of Matthew, named Levi by Mark and Luke in their versions of the story.
Matthew/Levi was an unlikely disciple; he was a tax collector. Tax collectors were among the most despised group of people in Jewish society of the time. Tax collectors never can be particularly popular, given their distasteful job, but in Jesus’ time they were collecting taxes for the hated and pagan colonial ruler. As such they were seen as collaborators and traitors to their own people and to their religion. The Romans had the custom of farming out the collecting of taxes to volunteer agents. These paid up the amount that the Romans demanded and then had to get the money back from the people. In doing so they often collected more than they had paid the Romans. This was their ‘commission’ but there was often an element of extortion and corruption in the whole practice.
Now Jesus invites one of these despised people to be his follower. It is an example of Jesus looking beyond the exterior and the stereotype to the potential of the real person inside. Immediately after this Jesus is seen sitting “in his house” having dinner with his disciples when they are joined by a number of tax collectors and other public sinners. It is not clear whether the ‘his’ refers to the house where Jesus was staying or Matthew’s house. In either event, it was bound to attract the notice of Jesus’ critics.
And indeed some Pharisees, seeing this, are shocked. They ask the disciples (not Jesus): “Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?” If Jesus is a man of God and a teacher, how can he be seen in the company of people who are religiously unclean? To be in their company is to become contaminated and unclean also.
Overhearing them, Jesus replies: “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick.” And he continues, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘What I want is mercy, not sacrifice’. And indeed I did not come to call the virtuous but sinners.” Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees by looking at the situation from a completely different perspective.
The problem is not of Jesus becoming contaminated by the sinful and the unclean but rather their becoming healed by his presence and influence. The legally minded (the ritualists) are only interested in themselves; those governed by love (the merciful) think primarily of the needs of their brothers and sisters. There is no need for Jesus to spend time with the virtuous, with the already converted; it is those in spiritual and moral deprivation with whom he needs to spend his time.
The lesson of today’s reading is extremely relevant for our own day. When looking for potential followers of Christ where do we tend to look? How many times have we heard people wonder why God picked them as Christian leaders – as priests, religious or lay people? When we look at the 12 apostles, they were indeed a strange bunch. Full of faults, fragile in their faith but in the end they started something extraordinary.
And is it not true that a great deal of our pastoral energies in our churches are directed at the already converted? Is it not true that those most in need of experiencing Christ’s love and healing are never touched by us? How many places in our inner cities do we as Christians avoid because they are “not suitable” for “good Catholics”? Where is the presence of Christ visible in our bars, discos, and other places of entertainment?