Summary: Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15, 21-24 “Justice for All”
Imagine participating in a worship service, which you believed was an unusually powerful service. The hymns were uplifting, the sermon was insightful and inspirational, and the prayers echoed the prayers of your heart. The coffee was primo, the baked goods fresh and tasty, and the fellowship was warm and friendly. When you leave, though, you are confronted by a man in the parking lot who shouts the accusations of Amos at you. Thus says the Lord, “I hate, I despise your festivals,/ and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies./ Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,/ I will not accept them;/ and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals / I will not look upon./ Take away from me the noise of your songs;/ I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” What a way to nullify a great worship experience and mess up your day.
No doubt those were the thoughts of the people who first heard Amos. Amos is one of the Minor Prophets whose writings are contained in the Old Testament. As one of the first of the prophets, Amos had a powerful message for the people of his day, and for us.
Amos prophesized in the late 8th century BC, during the reign of King Uzziah. The kingdom of David and Solomon—Israel’s Golden Era—was past. Though the kingdom was split, there were many who longed for the “good ol’ days” and Israel’s former glory. Others believed that the nation was slowly deteriorating. Few believed that within less than one hundred years the nation of Israel would no longer exist.
The time under King Uzziah’s reign was relatively prosperous—at least for a few. There was a growing gap between the rich and the poor. In God’s eyes, as expressed by Amos, this was a time of growing injustice and unrighteousness. Amos challenged the rich and the powerful to share their power and wealth—as Amos proclaims in verse 24, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Like most of us, the people of Amos’ time agreed with the general principle of justice, but struggled with the ramifications of justice when it became personal.
Justice is the standard by which the benefits and penalties of living in society are distributed. Throughout the Bible justice is an important concept. Justice is a central characteristic of the Kingdom of God. The people of God are called to seek justice (Micah 6:8)—not just for themselves but also for others. Unfortunately, because of our brokenness and self-centeredness, justice is always a rare commodity in human society.
The rich and the powerful historically have been the main opponents of justice. It was against the rich and powerful of Israel that Amos spoke. It was not the poor. In order to establish a just society the rich and powerful would have to share—even divest themselves of their riches and power. Of course the elite cry out that such requirements are not fair. The rich and powerful make excuses for ignoring the words of the prophets. “The poor don’t deserve it,” they say, “The poor have done nothing to earn it.”
As God gathered his people into the Promised Land, God gave them instructions as to how they were to live together. One law was the requirement to practice the “Year of Jubilee.” Every forty-nine years things were to be equalized. Those who had been enslaved were released. Land was returned to its original owners. Debts were cancelled. It was like starting over a game of Monopoly just when you had purchased Park Place and Boardwalk. The Year of Jubilee was based on the concept that no one could ever own anything, because everything was the Lord’s. History shows, however, that the Year of Jubilee was never practiced—it was opposed by the rich and the powerful.
During his ministry, Jesus constantly demonstrated justice—justice with love. He touched the lepers, healed bleeding women and even ministered to gentiles. The rich and the powerful—Rome and the Jewish religious leaders—didn’t like what Jesus said and did. They crucified him. But God raised Jesus and in doing so forever demonstrated that love trumps power, and that God is a God of justice.
LIVING FOR JUSTICE
We could debate forever what a just society looks like. Justice is one of the core dialogues in our country today, and also one of the subjects of a multitude of diatribes. This is a discussion that we need to have within ourselves and between ourselves. I’d like to share some examples of what I think it means to strive for justice.
• At the end of apartheid in South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established. Under the leadership of Bishop Desmond Tutu the oppressed were invited to state for the record what they had experienced. Their oppressors were able to ask for forgiveness and receive amnesty. Some argued that proceedings weren’t justice, while others said they were the epitome of justice and love.