The Hebrew prophets in the Old Testament were prominent figures in social justice during their time. Often, they were included in their writings and homilies scathing rebukes towards those who would impose injustice upon the masses. While their primary concern was the people’s relationship with God Himself, the prophets understood that tending to the needs of the poor was a crucial aspect of conveying God’s for the world. Moses can be considered the first prophet called to the divine stage to deliver God’s people from social injustice; however, the prophet Amos and his ministry provided a clear framework for how the ideal role of the prophet (old and new) as a social reformer was intended to look like.
Amos is the author of the Book of Amos, the third book in the Old Testament involving the writings of the Minor Prophets. He was a shepherd from a Hebrew village called Tekoa. He did not receive formal education, whether it be theological, spiritual, or otherwise. He was a man of humble beginnings and was most likely a man with a humble end. Called from God during his time as a lowly shepherd, Amos preached to Israel during a time of oppression of the lower class (Am. 7:15).
Amos prophesied to a society drenched in dire classism, with an elite tier of Israeli authorities (civil and religious) who enjoyed wealth and prosperity while the majority faced poverty and affliction. The epitome of Amos’s prophetic ministry is summed up in this verse: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” (Am. 5:24 NRSV). Amos’ words can be applied to any social situation which Christians may face today, and the fact that Amos regards justice and righteousness as inseparable concepts is significant in that it teaches us that God is both just and righteous.
The people whom Amos prophesied to had “turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood,” (6:12b NRSV). Such scathing words for those enjoying a luxurious lifestyle while the poor rot in the streets are rare in Christian communities, where many choose to blame the poor for their failures rather than beseech the rich to have mercy. One has to wonder who the modern Christian can relate to more in the context of Amos’s oracles of woe. To the prophet himself or the wealthy and unrepentant people?
Imagine sitting in church on a Sunday morning, and as you leave the church building, your pastor is confronted by a lower-class man, who claims to have obtained a prophetic mission from God. “Do horses run upon rocks?” He demands of him, “Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood,” (6:12). One does not have to wildly conjecture what the response might be. “Just another nut job,” the pastor might think to himself, nodding to the man and hurrying to his car.
Amos himself confronted social issues head-on. He declared the judgments of God and the path to salvation as shortly and sweetly as possible, disavowing any possibility of lenience on the basis of partiality. Yet, even with his stern and bold personality, Amos had a loving and godly spirit. “Seek good and not evil, that you may live;” he pleaded to the people of Israel, “and so that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,” (Am. 5:14-15a NRSV). Needless to say, Amos set the standard of which attributes a godly prophet should have: boldness, steadfastness, compassion, and love.
Now let us compare Amos with the magnitude of preachers today who allegedly preach the Word of God. Many Christian preachers stand at the pulpit and espouse from their mouths what may prove contradictory to the gospel. If you turn on the television, finding a well-dressed preacher pronouncing that God desires his children to be wealthy is not uncommon; he says that nice things are signs of God’s favor or that we are able to acquire whatever we desire if we simply have enough faith. This is not the message which Amos brought to God’s people; in fact, it is the exact opposite. Do you know of a Christian who has exposed the lavish lifestyles of many contemporary preachers today as Amos did in his time? Or is the luxury enjoyed by countless Christian leaders considered to be the normative function of their office?
God called Amos to preach to His people about the social issues in his day. In a way, God is calling us out to perform a similar service. The Torah prescribes that we do not “render an unjust judgment” (Lev. 19:15), and Amos’ command to hate evil, love good, and establish justice rings through the countless centuries by communicating about the Holy Scriptures. Jesus’ promotion for social justice is unique in that he encourages his disciples not to express justice and goodness through the Law but through acquiring a spirit of love. The purest expression of the Christian life is a boundless love for both God and one’s neighbor (Mk. 12:28-34). Prophets today possess this responsibility that was thrust upon Amos back in the days; unarguably, it is the responsibility to proclaim to the unjust and the ungodly the words of the Lord and their social implications.
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How can you be more like Amos in your ministry?