Thursday of Week 13 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Amos 7:10-17

Today we see Amos expelled from the sanctuary of Bethel, which, as mentioned, was in Israel, the Northern Kingdom. The reading begins with Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, telling Jeroboam, king of Israel, about the things Amos has been saying against the king:

Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.

By “Jeroboam”, he means the royal house, where the king’s name also represents the dynasty. In fact, Jeroboam will die a natural death (2 Kings 14:29) but his son and successor Zechariah will be assassinated (2 Kings 15:8,10).

By any standards, these would be regarded as treasonable words and they were seen as such. The fact that they would be proved true was not relevant at this time. And, as far as Amos was concerned, he was simply transmitting words of warning from God to his people.

Amaziah, the priest, who comes across as someone more interested in his personal position and career with the king than in the service of God, is determined to get rid of this trouble-maker.

The contempt that Amaziah feels for Amos is clear:

O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there…

Amos is never again to prophesy in the shrine at Bethel, which Amaziah describes as the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple. Amaziah’s allegiance is to the King of Samaria rather than to Israel’s heavenly King. Amos is dismissed as a prophet for hire who need not be taken seriously.

Amos, however, makes no claims to being a member of a school of ‘professional’ prophets. He is neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son. He denies any connection with any school of prophets or their disciples. No one had hired him to announce judgement against Jeroboam and Israel.

He says that he was a simple shepherd (although the unusual Hebrew word used could mean he tended cattle also) and a “dresser of sycamore trees”. The “sycamore” here was a large tree which bore a fig-like fruit and also provided good timber. In order to ensure a good crop, the gardener had to slit the top of each fig and this is presumably implied by the rare word “dresser” of sycamores.

Amos says:

…the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

If Amos was prophesying, it was simply in response to instructions which God had given him. He has been made a different kind of shepherd for a flock that is straying far from the Lord.

Amos then proceeds to utter a savage prophecy against the priest Amaziah, even though Amaziah had told Amos not to prophesy (which was, in fact, telling the prophet to disobey God). There are four points in his prophecy:

  1. Amaziah will be exiled to Gentile, “unclean” and idolatrous territory where his ceremonial purity as a priest will be defiled;
  2. his sons and daughters will be slaughtered;
  3. he will lose his family estate;
  4. his wife will be reduced to prostitution in order to survive.

And he repeats again the prophecy he had made earlier: the people of Israel will be driven into exile, repeating exactly the words Amaziah had attributed to Amos at the beginning of the reading. All of these things, of course, took place.

The reading epitomises the challenging but indispensable role of the prophet. His responsibility is to speak out clearly the truths he sees, however unpalatable they may be. He is bound to arouse hostility against himself by those who do not want to hear what he has to say. Yet prophets are absolutely essential; we need them, even if we do not like their messages.

There is a distinguished line of prophets in the Old Testament, of whom Amos is an excellent example. But there are also prophets in the New Testament. Jesus was a prophet, as was John the Baptist (although usually regarded as the last of the OT prophets). Both died because of the messages they gave in word and deed.

The letters of Paul rank ‘prophets’ very high in the list of charisms in the Church – immediately after ‘apostles‘:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets… (1 Cor 12:27-28)

Down the centuries there has, thankfully, been a long list of prophets, some of whom fell victims of the Church itself. Even some of those regarded as heretics were prophets in their own way and, while much of what they said was regarded as not in harmony with tradition, they often forced the Church into changing direction. Without Luther and the other Protestant reformers would there have been a Council of Trent? Would there have been a Counter-Reformation?

The Second Vatican Council, too, produced many prophetic voices which led to insights not dreamed of by its first organisers. One example was Bishop Helder Camrara of Recife in Brazil. He was once credited with saying: “When I give help to the poor, people call me a saint; when I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.” Bishop Camara was a prophet.

In our recent past, one thinks, too, of Bishop Oscar Romero, martyred in El Salvador, or of the martyred Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. In one case, a prophetic voice for the downtrodden poor and, in the other, a voice demanding equality for the black people of the United States.

Who are the prophets in our Christian communities today? Do we recognise them? Do we listen to them? May we have many more of them.

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