Friday, October 19, 2007

Whoa! and Woe!

Three weeks ago, I read another prophetic word of woe in church, this time from the Book of Amos.

The current translation in the Lectionary begins with "Alas for those who are at ease in Zion" instead of the older "Woe to those who..." Preferring the word "woe" to the tamer "alas", I asked for and got permission to make the substitution. When I reached the lectern, I was so focused on "woe" and on finding just the right tone and emphasis for that opening cry that I forgot the standard introduction: "A reading from the book of Amos, the 6th chapter, beginning at the first verse." Without preamble, I launched into the prophet's attack on the idle, uncaring rich. Later, I was told that I had certainly grabbed people's attention.

I think Amos would have liked that. Leading off with "Woe" is like hitting a jackass with a two-by-four in order to get his attention. The message following that first hit is always one that the hearers don't want to listen to. That's generally because they're the rich and powerful, satisfied with their riches and secure in their dominance.

Amos' word to them is that their Homeland Security is an illusion: "Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure in Mount Samaria". The continuation of the sentence makes it clear that Amos is talking to the power elite: "the notables of the first of the nations to whom the House of Israel resorts." The sarcasm of "the first of the nations" continues. Amos asks these "notables" if their little statelet is bigger and stronger than its neighbors. Well-known to his contemporary audience, but not to his modern one, all three of the places he mentions had already been conquered by the Assyrian Empire. So the implication is that despite your pretensions, guys, you're next.

And his warning is clear: "you that put far away the evil day" have put aside any idea that your actions will be judged, will have consequences. And so you "bring near a reign of violence", the retribution for your actions.

And why? Amos runs through a list of decadently luxurious pleasures enjoyed by his targets: lounging on fancy furniture, eating high on the lamb, amusing themselves with idle songs, swilling wine in bowls, anointing themselves with fine oils. And it's not that these pleasures are intrinsically bad -- this isn't a diatribe against gluttony or sexual debauchery, for example. The problem is that with all these perks of prosperity, the notables have forgotten the important things: they "are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!" And exactly what is the ruin of Joseph? It runs all through Amos' book: it's the "trampling of the head of the poor into the dust". (Amos 2:7) Joseph is "the poor of the land" who have been brought to ruin by cheaters, swindlers, profiteers, who buy them for silver or for a pair of sandals. (Amos 8:4)

Because the wealthy are not grieved, they shall be the first to go into exile when Assyria makes its next conquest. Then "the revelry of the loungers shall pass away."

Amos hereby strikes another blow in the unending battle of prophets against the type of prosperity gospels that substitute the wealth of a few for the prosperity of the people. He says "whoa!". Change now! Or it will be "woe!"

And today there are still hardly enough "whoas" and "woes" to go around.

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