The “unlikely messenger” is a theme in literature that we see reflected in numerous works. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings series comes to mind, in which the hobbits Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam often seem like the least likely candidates to be chosen to wield the Ring of Power and send it to its demise at Mt. Doom. We see this theme in the Bible as well, as in the Book of Judges, where cowards like Gideon and numbskulls like Samson seem like odd choices of God. Actually, the readings for this upcoming Sunday are united by the theme of God’s choice of his messengers. And, as is typical for God, he chooses some unlikely candidates.
Since my full commentaries are now available as a book here, I’m just going to comment on this Sunday’s First Reading, Amos 7:12-15:
Amaziah, priest of Bethel, said to Amos,
“Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah!
There earn your bread by prophesying,
but never again prophesy in Bethel;
for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.”
Amos answered Amaziah, “I was no prophet,
nor have I belonged to a company of prophets;
I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.
The LORD took me from following the flock, and said to me,
Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
Amos is often thought to be the earliest of all the literary (writing) prophets, since his relatively short ministry probably fell in the decade 770-760 BC. Amos 1:1 dates his prophecy to “two years before the earthquake” during the reigns of Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel, an event that archeologists now estimate at c. 760 BC, ±25 yrs. This would probably place his ministry just prior to Hosea’s longer career (c. 750-725BC).
Amos, like Hosea, prophesied to northern Israel; but unlike Hosea, Amos was not a northerner himself. He was a Judean from Tekoa, a village to the south of Jerusalem, an agricultural worker who raised sheep and tended an orchard of sycamore-figs (Amos 7:14). He was called by God to preach judgment to northern Israel at a time when that nation was wealthy, arrogant, and oppressive to their southern neighbors. Amos clearly distances himself from the professional prophets who learned prophesying from their fathers and practiced it as a kind of family trade (see Amos 7:12-14). He was not motivated by a desire to earn a living, but was impelled by a genuine commission from God (7:15).
Amos went to the northern kingdom and prophesied that the rich and elite would be destroyed and exiled, because they were oppressing the common people, and offering false worship.
Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, was an illegitimate political appointee who served the king, Jeroboam. In the northern kingdom, the government had taken over the “church” and was using it for its own political purposes. Amaziah was in charge of the idol-temple in Bethel, and he was not pleased with Amos hanging around preaching judgment on Israel’s sins. He tells him in no very polite words to get out. Because Amos was preaching against northern Israel, Amaziah figures he must be pro-Judean, and tells him to get back south to “earn your bread.” Actually, Amos also had words of judgment for the south. Be that as it may, Amos responds by denying that he is a professional, or prophesying to make money: “I was no prophet … I was a shepherd and dresser of sycamores …”
Amos was not a “professional.” He had no formal theological training—“nor have I belonged to a company of prophets.” The “company of prophets” were groups—often called “the sons of the prophets”—that probably copied, studied, and preserved sacred texts, and fostered prayer and the development of prophetic gifts. One may think of them as an early form of religious orders.
But Amos was not associated with those groups. He was an unlikely candidate who got a call from God. He was compelled to go and preach, not motivated by money, but by the Spirit of God moving in him.
Amos was not afraid to criticize the government of Israel in his day: a government that presumed to control religion, to tell people what was right and wrong, and set its own limits and rules for what qualified as worship. “Never prophesy again in Bethel! It is a king’s sanctuary and a royal temple!” In other words, “Don’t you know you are on government property? How dare you criticize state policies! Who do you think you are?” Fortunately for us, governments that seek to control the Church for political ends are long gone from our modern world, along with governments that presume to decide moral and religious issues for the populace, and to tell the Church what its rights are, and what they are not. How fortunate we are! [My tongue is firmly planted in my cheek.] But at other times and places in human history, this passage of Amos was very relevant and even poignant.
Interestingly, Amaziah projects onto Amos the same kind of utilitarian view of religion that Amaziah himself espouses. Amaziah was a government functionary, a political appointee for whom serving as a priest was a way to support himself. He assumes the same is true for Amos: “Flee to Judah! There earn your bread by prophesying!”
But to view religion as a means to a temporal end, as a way to make money or support oneself, is always a gross distortion of one’s relationship to God. St. Paul warns about “men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim 6:5). Incalculable damage has been done to the Church through the ages by persons in the priesthood, religious life, or religious education who have lost their faith but continue in their roles because they have no other easy way to support themselves. May God protect us from such persons, and keep us from becoming such persons ourselves!