Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, September 25, 2016
Some wealthy members of the tribe of Israel had forgotten their people's humble origins. They were taking advantage of the poor, cheating on their nation's weights and measures, and violating the Sabbath. The prophet Amos mocks their scheming thoughts.
In this reading, an early church leader reminds another leader that the mission of Christ was universal, so our prayers and concern should extend toward all, not just other Christians.
Today's gospel has two parts: first a parable about acting decisively in the face of crisis, meant perhaps to prepare disciples for the coming of the reign of God. Then there is a series of loosely related sayings about the use of wealth.
The Historical Situation: For a long time, the territory we call the Holy Land was divided between a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom known as Judah. The city Jerusalem was in Judah. In the northern kingdom, at Bethel (Hebrew for "House of God") there was a very ancient shrine. Its priesthood was older than that established by Moses' brother Aaron. Israel was prosperous, at least for the upper classes, in the 8th century B.C.E., and the Bethel priests were comfortable cronies of the king.
In this milieu lived a man named Amos, street-smart and a savvy observer of the human condition. He knew his tradition. Amos remembered how his people's God had chosen a rag-tag band of slaves in Egypt, made them his own, and led them to freedom. Amos knew that this God of the poor was not happy with the current neglect and exploitation of the poor by the powerful. So he spoke up.
Amos starts by deriding the grasping of the powerful, mocking their private thoughts. In those days, certain commercial activities were forbidden on the Sabbath and during days around the new moon, so the chiselers want those periods to be over. To diminish the ephah (EF uh, with a short e in the first syllable) and add to the shekel (SHEK el, with short e's) is to tamper with the weights, measures and currencies of the society. The word for the useless part of the wheat harvest is pronounced "REF use" with the accent on the first syllable and a short e sound there.
Your Prophetic Proclamation: When you read these secret thoughts of these nasty people, make a caricature of them with your voice. That's what Amos was doing. Pause at the end of the quoted thoughts because you are changing characters.
Assume a more solemn voice when you pronounce the Lord's sworn oath. Speak slowly and threateningly. You've mocked the wicked, now you're pronouncing sentence on them.
One more detail: What is the pride of Jacob? Remember this nation was founded by Abraham, whose son Isaac had a son named Jacob. Jacob's other name was Israel. Both names are applied to the nation as a whole. So swearing by the "pride of Jacob" is an appeal to all the greatness in the heritage of these people.
The Historical and Theological Situation: In the beginning, Jesus struggled to get Jews to recognize that there could be a good Samaritan (see the gospel of ten weeks ago, Luke 10:25-37 and a faithful Roman centurion (see Matthew, chapter 8). Then Saint Paul struggled to get Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to respect each other (see particularly the letters to the Galatians, Romans, and Ephesians).
Now this author had to remind Timothy (a community leader whose office evolved into the modern office of bishop) and his congregation that God's concern extends to all people, not just themselves. Some scholars think some early Christians may have refused to pray for pagans, and this passage means to correct that. And the author insists again that he was called to take the gospel to all peoples, so refusing to pray for them is hardly right. The teaching is reflected in our modern Prayer of the Faithful, which should embrace the needs of the whole world, not just those of the church.
Your Proclamation: The passage has four parts:
Another historical note: In a few weeks we'll read passages that reveal how the earliest Christians expected Jesus to return in glory very soon, and to bring history to its climax. Today's second reading is clearly composed later, after that expectation had changed. In this passage, we see a church concerned with getting along in the larger pagan society. They realize they're in this for a long haul.
The prophet Amos, a sculpture in soapstone by the Brazilian artist Aleijadinho (born Antônio Francisco Lisboa; 1730 or 1738 – November 18, 1814). His statues of 12 prophets adorn a terrace at the Santuário do Bom Jesus do Matosinhos, in Congonhas, 385 km north of Rio de Janeiro.
A very thorough Web resource about the art at the Santuário is InsiderBrazil by Adriano Antoine Robbesom, PhD., originally from the Netherlands, now living in Brazil. The photo here is by Dr. Robbesom.
For the Amos statue in particular, click here. In the statue, the prophet holds a scroll or shield below his waist. On it appear these words, per Robbesom's transcription:
De inde Propheta,/
In Vaccas Pin/
I would translate that Latin, "In the first place, I was a shepherd, and only then a prophet. I inveigh against the fat cows and the leaders."
The last two lines on the scroll/shield imply, inaccurately, that this is a quote from chapter 1 of the Book of Amos. In Amos 4:1-2, the prophet does say, "Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on the mountain of Samaria, Who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, Who say to your husbands, 'Bring now, that we may drink!' The Lord GOD has sworn by His holiness, 'Behold, the days are coming upon you When they will take you away with meat hooks, And the last of you with fish hooks...'" (NASB). And in Amos 7:14-15 we read that, criticized for his prophecies by the priest Amaziah, Amos replied, "I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet; for I am a herdsman and a grower of sycamore figs. But the LORD took me from following the flock and the LORD said to me, 'Go prophesy to My people Israel.'..." (ibid.).
More likely, the sculptor was paraphrasing Cornelius Kilianus, a Flemish translator/poet, 1607-1685, in whose Latijnsche Gedichten (Latin-language poems) we can find:
Primo equidem pastor, factusque deinde propheta,
In vaccas pingues invehor et proceres.
My warrant for connecting the Latijnsche Gedichten to Cornelius Kilianus comes from my reading of Max Rooses' 1880 collection of Kilianus' Latin poems, a page of the Google books project. That page is created by optical-character-recognition. That means they scan the pages of a very old book, then get a computer program to turn the scanned image into lines of text. It's not foolproof. Google translate is not foolproof. And my reading of Dutch is anything but foolproof. If you really want to dig into this, see the DBNL, the Digitial Library of the Netherlands' Letters.
Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.
This page updated August 29, 2016