“For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins-- you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.”
A couple of weeks ago (11/25/06), the FOX network cancelled, at the last minute, a two-part special that featured O. J. Simpson explaining how he would have killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, if he had been the guilty party. The special was titled: "If I Did It, Here's How It Happened," and it was timed to tie into a book by O.J. with the shortened title of "If I Did It." The publishing house for the book is ReganBooks, which is owned, like the FOX network, by News Corp, which is sometimes called Murdoch Media.
"I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project," said News Corp Chairman, Rupert Murdoch. "We are sorry for any pain this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown-Simpson."
The obvious question is: If FOX knew the special was so repugnant in the first place, then why schedule it at all? Of course, we know the answer—ratings. FOX is not doing well in ratings right now, and they need, or they thought they needed, a scandalous blockbuster. Why did they cancel the program? Ratings. There was a firestorm of protest against it. A dozen Fox affiliates had already said they would not air the two-part sweeps month special. Advertising for the program vanished. Moreover, FOX was flooded with an unprecedented number of negative emails, letters, and phone calls. Finally FOX got the message and the cancelled the program.
The question I want to ask this morning is why were people so angry? The murders happened 12 years ago. O. J, Simpson was acquitted. People still argue about why he was acquitted. DNA evidence was rather new at the time. It is said that neither the prosecuting attorneys nor the jury understood the scientific evidence that was available. But, in any case, there is a widespread belief that justice was not done. A murderer was acquitted. The system failed Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown-Simpson.
That makes people angry, not just because two people were killed, but because Justice failed, and justice is the very foundation of our society. In order for our society to function, we all have to believe that we can get equal treatment before the bar of justice. That is why the traditional symbol of "Justice" is a blindfolded woman holding scales and a sword. The scales weigh right and wrong; the sword punishes the guilty; the blindfold shows that she is impartial. Now I know that this symbol represents an ideal that is never fully realized in practice. We are dealing with human beings and nothing human is ever perfect. But, in general, we believe that everyone gets their day in court and they get a “fair shake” from the justice system.
Now you might say that every society has always believed that, but, in fact, that is not so. For an average person, in ancient times, justice was often hard to come by. We pretty much owe our ideas about justice to the Hebrew prophets of the 8th century B.C. This is not to say that nobody before these prophets ever thought about justice, but nobody emphasized justice like they did. The basic insight of the prophets was that justice is a characteristic of God.
We take that insight for granted today. God is good, God is just. Everybody knows that. In fact, most pagan gods were neither just nor good. For example, Homer’s Iliad describes the last year of the Trojan War. The opening scenes of the great epic poem tell us that the sun god, Apollo, is angry because the Greek general Agamemnon has failed to let one of the sun god's priests ransom a daughter whom Agamemnon has taken as a concubine. Agamemnon finally gives the girl up but insists on taking in her place Briseis, a captive originally given to Achilles. Achilles is enraged and complains to his mother, the semi-divine, Thetis, who persuades Zeus, the high god of the Greeks, to let the Trojans prevail in battle until Achilles' honor is satisfied. So it goes through the whole Iliad. In book 3, Paris, who caused the war by stealing Helen the wife of Menelaus, agrees to single combat with Menelaus. After 10 years, everybody was tired of fighting, and it seems fair to let Paris and Menelaus duke it out and settle the issue of Helen so everybody can go home. But when it becomes obvious that Menelaus is going to kill Paris, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, suddenly swoops in and spirits him away. So it is throughout the Iliad, the gods argue among themselves, betray each other, fight on the sides of their favorites. The gods are whimsical, often illogical, and certainly not just.
The Greeks said this is an illustration for the way life is. Life is not just, life makes no sense. The only thing people can do is try to live with honor in the midst of all this chaos, and die with dignity whenever it is their fate to die.
But the 8th century Hebrew prophets bought us an altogether different view of God. They said that God is not whimsical, God is not illogical. They said, God cares. We see this in Amos. Amos was a shepherd who lived during the days of Jeroboam II, which is to say around 788-747 B.C. It was a time of territorial expansion and national prosperity, and this prosperity led to gross inequities in Israelite society. Through the manipulation of debt and credit, wealthy landowners amassed huge estates, and small farmers and shepherds were forced out of business. The smallest debt, any kind of debt, was used as a pretext to seize property and sell whole families into slavery. Into this situation, steps Amos, who denounced in vivid language, individual Israelites who took advantage of other people’s difficulties. He also denounced the whole society that allowed them to take such advantage.
In chapter 5, beginning at v8, Amos has this powerful description of God: “The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the LORD is his name.” This is a poetic description of the power of God. We see God as creator and sustainer of the universe. It is interesting to note that in paganism the stars were sometimes worshipped. Amos points our worship beyond the stars to that power that created the stars.
Then he says in v9, that God “makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.”
The strong in any society, the aristocracy, the people in charge, always think that nothing can happen to them. That poor rabble down beneath them, they might suffer and die, but it will not come to them, in their fortress. Amos says, it will come to them. They will be struck down just like everybody else. They are no better than anybody else. Here is an equality that we seldom find mentioned anywhere in the ancient world. This is important. God treats everybody the same—poor or rich, it does not matter. And there is good news here: Anyone can seek the Lord. We may be at the lowest ebb of our lives, on the verge of ruin, but if we turn to God, God will be with us to help us—because God cares for every person.
God’s care is the basis for justice. The way we care for each other, the way a society cares for its people, should be the same way God cares. A Just society is founded on the image of a just God.
Justice involves appropriate relationships between people, and these relationships contribute to the well being of people. Just relationships benefit people. Justice is about relationships, the right kind of relationships, relationships that God approves of. Thus, we might say that justice is an aspect of God’s love. When people act against justice, they act against love. When the disadvantaged are cheated and the weak are downtrodden, the stability of a just society is undermined, relationships are destroyed and God’s wrath is aroused.
If God were like the gods of the pagans, then justice would not be a concern, because God would not care. But the point Amos makes is that God does care.
In v10, Amos speaks of those who profit by exploitation. “They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.” Those in charge do not want honest courts. They do not want open dealing. They want things done in secret, so they can rip people off without fear of retribution. There is principle here: open courts where anyone can attend and see justice done is a basic principle of a just society. But, Amos goes on with his denunciation in V12: “For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins-- you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.”
His point is that a just and loving God knows that they have exploited their neighbors, and God despises their behavior. Thus, Amos says in vs16-17, “In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, "Alas! alas!" They shall call the farmers to mourning, and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing; in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you, says the LORD.”
God is so angry because of their injustice that he will destroy them. God is angry because God is love. Some commentators seem to have a hard time reconciling God’s anger with God’s love. I sometimes hear people say, God is love like the NT says, but God is also wrath like the OT says, and they seem to feel that love and wrath are two separate aspects of God. Nonsense. God’s anger is because of God’s love. God loves every person, and when he sees any person mistreated, God does not like it. That is no surprise. We act the same way. If someone mistreats your friends, your children or parents or relatives, you get mad. Anger is always part of love. People that never get angry just do not love very much. But God loves the most of all. That is why God goes ballistic when any of God’s people are exploited or misused.
This is the revelation of God that Amos had, and this revelation is continued in Jesus Christ. Today is the first Sabbath in Advent, and we look forward to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Above all Jesus taught that God is love. Jesus told us about the Good Samaritan who helped a helpless stranger. He told us about the Prodigal Son who was welcomed home by an ever-loving father. Jesus summarized the whole law of God in terms of love.
Jesus calls his disciples to be a people of love. This means that we recognize that God loves every person, and therefore, we are supposed to love every person. We express that love concretely in our society by making sure that every person receives justice. That does not meant that everybody should be equally successful, that does not mean that everybody should have the same things. We are different people, with different aptitudes, different likes and dislikes. This difference is our strength. In order for us to build on our strengths, our different talents, we need a system that encourages us to reach our maximum potential. In other words, we need to live in a just society.
What then does Amos say to us, to you and me? We are called to be reflections of the love of God. Our purpose in life is to make God’s love real where we are. And, we should work to make our society reflect that same love at every level. That is the work of a disciple of Christ. We need to be about that work.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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