Amos 8:4-6, 11
4Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
5saying, "When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
6buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat."
11The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
Today we're considering a reading from the prophet Amos. We find Amos in the Book of the Twelve [prophets] sometimes called the Minor Prophets, but they're minor only in length, definitely not in impact and import. Along the lectionary way we've heard readings from former prophets that include Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Amos probably is the earliest of the writing prophets. He lived and prophesied during the eighth century, not long before 1st Isaiah [1-39], Hosea, and Micah, all of whom generally come under the "eighth century prophet" category. I tend to say words like probably, maybe, possibly, most likely a lot, because we're constantly discovering more about the historical and cultural background of the scriptures.
Especially when we recently discussed the major prophet Jeremiah, we talked about the classic prophetic stance of speaking truth to power, words against the establishment, unsettling the status quo. A prophet announces God's expectations of justice, righteousness, mercy, and love, particularly toward marginalized people such as widows, orphans, immigrants, and chronically ill who are far from self-sufficient. The late Robert Farrar Capon used a memorable list of the "last, least, little, lost." Pro-pheteia literally means against the king or ruler. Like Jeremiah, Amos fits that expectation extremely well.
Although Amos lived in Judah, the southern Kingdom, God sent him to prophesy to the northern kingdom of Israel (Jacob, Samaria), where people worshiped at shrines of the tribal confederacies (Amos mentions Gilgal and Bethel) rather than the Jerusalem Temple that was central to the south.
By trade or profession, Amos was an urban forester, a vine-dresser, who tended sycamore (and likely other varieties of) trees. The sycamore was the national tree of Israel! Amos tells us he is not a professional prophet, which may seem a strange to us, but in sections of the OT you'll find guilds or groups of prophets for God's people and for neighboring religions, just as there also are professional priests. Notably, Amos brings us (what's probably, ha ha) the very earliest articulation of monotheism in scripture.
• In Amos 5:24 we find "Let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream," made ultra-famous by MLK.
• Amos 7:7 "...the Lord stood by a wall built true to plumb, with a plumbline in his hand," is another especially memorable image from Amos.
As cultural anthropology emphasizes and celebrates, humans are symbol-makers who tend to be adept at interpreting and giving meaning to objects, signs and symbols. In fact, written and spoken words themselves qualify as symbols.
God speaks through Amos with quite a few natural and other everyday, real-life symbols people easily would recognize and interpret. Cedars, oaks, locusts, fire, a plumbline, waters, rivers; immediately before today's selection there's a basket of summer fruit.
Back to today's reading:
Amos speaks judgment against merchants who are not dealing fairly. They didn't have coinage yet; ephah was a volume measurement, shekel (that later became the name of a coin) was a weight measurement. Markets or other locations where people sell, barter, use means of exchange to acquire goods they need to survive are totally legitimate by biblical or any other standard, and they've been necessary ever since humans stopped living as hunter-gatherers and foragers. Making a profit in excess of your asking price also is fair, just, and necessary, since sellers need to become buyers to acquire items that meet their needs. Back then in the 8th century BCE and now in the 21st century CE, problems arises when sellers misrepresent their offerings in terms of quality and quantity, and when they realize excessive profits.
The merchants Amos addresses also had no interest in keeping the commandment to observe Sabbath or in keeping other mandated religious festivals. They only wanted to return to making money and even exploiting people. Besides providing the gift of needed rest, Sabbath remains a time to trust God will provide for our needs; when we keep Sabbath we don't count, produce, (or ideally) even slice or dice or chop—or turn on a stove and cook.
Furthermore, "selling the sweepings of the wheat" refers to gleanings that didn't always get caught during harvest, and that scripture commands be left so people in need can pick them up and benefit from them.
We had a wonderfully interesting discussion about contemporary agricultural gleanings. Many local Trader Joes/TJs have become well-known for re-distributing quality produce and other food that hasn't sold by tag date. Someone told us about a nearby charity organization checking in to her supermarket that's part of a nationwide mega-chain and leaving most mornings with a truckload of mostly baked goods, sometimes fruits and veggies.