The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Who wouldn’t want a basket of summer fruit? Ripe watermelon, a juicy peach, fresh cantaloupe, plums, figs and strawberries? Generally, fruit baskets are seen as wonderful, cheerful gifts. We take them to people who are recuperating from an illness, bestow them as gifts of thanks and give them to hard-working colleagues. Place one on the countertop of our kitchen, and it reminds us of the tasty blessings of God’s bounty. But, somehow, I doubt any of us would want to reach out and take a bite of what God is showing the prophet Amos this morning.
Linking the fruit basket that God points out to Amos to the foreboding words which follow seems incongruous to those of us listening to the Old Testament lesson for this morning. But remember this—Amos was a prophet whose full-time occupation was an arborist. He was a tender of trees that bore the sycamore fig. He knew about fruit.
What’s more, today’s lesson involves a play on words—lost to those of us who don’t know Hebrew. The Hebrew word for “summer fruit” is very similar to the word “end”. It’s a pun that those listening to these words approximately 2800 years ago wouldn’t have missed.
So, picture that basket of summer fruit as deceiving to the eye—so ripe, that it’s almost rotten. What God is saying here is that while Israel may look like a beautiful fig on the outside—in the inside—there’s little more than rot. Not so tasty now, huh?
This was the description of Israel that Amos was given to deliver. Amos lived during the reign of the renowned King of Israel, Jeroboam II, who reigned forty one years. In his time, Jeroboam forged a political dynasty characterized by territorial expansion, aggressive militarism, and unprecedented national prosperity. The citizens of his day took patriotic pride in their religiosity, their history as God’s favored people, their military conquests, their economic affluence, and their political security. In other words, people were safe, secure, and reasonably well off. Take a look around—sound familiar?
But here’s what Amos tells the people of Israel—under that prosperous veneer, beneath their healthy retirement portfolio, just beyond sight of their latest military parade, hidden beneath their healthy stock returns and just below the surface of their recently well-attended religious celebration, something rotten lurked.
The critique that Amos leveled against his countrymen was withering. Sure, Amos said, the Israelites appeared devout enough on the surface, but all that time they spent in the temple—their minds weren’t on God, so much as on their gold. What’s more, they weren’t simply glorying in their prosperity—they were pondering ways in which they could swindle vulnerable people, not only out of their money—but out of their freedom as well—all while they sat smugly in their pews. Listen again to what he says: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying: (when will the Sabbath be over), so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the bushel small and the profit great, and practice deceit with false balances…”
In speaking to the people of Israel, Amos told them that for every cause—there is an equal, and devastating effect. In other words, God was well aware of the deceit in their hearts, and there would be a corresponding response as a result of their faithlessness. In truth, I imagine that few people really listened to what Amos had to say. But the ones who did, they weren’t fond of him. In fact, Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, ran Amos out of town. But the prophecy of Amos came swiftly. Within a mere twenty-five years, Israel went from being a regional power under Jeroboam II to a failed state, conquered by the Assyrians.
It’s tempting to leave Amos’ words to the ancient world in which they were first spoken. Even today, his prophecy is deeply uncomfortable to hear. Imagine him speaking these words to us. And notice, if you will, that he isn’t speaking to individuals, so much as he is speaking in a way that includes corporate institutions: businesses, churches and governments. He shows that God cares not only about what happens in the private life of an individual, God cares about the moral actions of institutional systems, both public and private.
What do you think Amos would point to in our world? Perhaps our system of mass incarceration? Or our lack of access to appropriate mental health care? Maybe he’d give a nod toward Boeing Corporation, who placed profit over the high cost of pilot training, trouble shooting and adequate testing. Perhaps he’d look to pharmaceutical companies who have doubled the price of insulin over the past four years from $234.00/month to $450.00/month, resulting in financial crises for thousands of Americans. And then there is the Epipen whose cost rose a staggering 500% over a seven year period, courtesy of Mylan Corporation. And, of course, there is the ongoing water crisis in Flint Michigan, and the coal mining disasters in West Virginia resulting in the depredation of natural resources, caused by nothing less than the greed. Mind you, I don’t see these as political issues—they are ethical and moral issues.
Where is the good news in this lesson? Is there any here; either for the people of Amos’ time, or our own? From my perspective, it is found in the simple observation that God cares. Think about it. God cares about what we do, how we live, who suffers, and who gains through the oppression of others. God notices. What this means, is that what we do, or fail to do, matters. It matters deeply. Not only does it matter to the people in our community and beyond, it matters to God. No doubt, Amos’s words are deeply unsettling to those who profit by deceitful measures; but they are decidedly comforting to others, to those who live on the margins of society. So, I suppose today’s lesson is a call for us to listen and to notice, and ultimately to act, in whatever means we have at our disposal, to ensure that the blessings we enjoy are based, not upon deceit, but upon a righteousness that comes from a flowering of creativity and industry and is a blessing to all. May we become a basket of fruit without one rotten apple in the bunch. In Jesus’ name. Amen.