So the prophet Amos and Jesus walk into a bar operated by a church. When Amos orders a beer, the bartender says, “We don’t serve your kind in here. This is a non-prophet bar.” Feeling this must be some kind of mistake, Amos and Jesus leave the bar and speak to the priest of the church, who agrees to walk in with them to explain matters to the bartender. So Jesus, Amos, and a priest walk into the bar. As soon as bartender sees them and asks, “What is this, some kind of joke?”
It will just be my luck that these lame jokes will be all you remember from this reflection! I’ll stick to my day job … I promise!
Thus far in our series, we’ve been pretty careful to listen to Amos’ words in his own context, trying to understand his message within its ancient historical, political, and religious context without asking very much how Jesus might be involved in it all. But now that we have taken some time to understand Amos in his own words, it is perfectly appropriate to ask the “Jesus question.” I’ll put it this way: “If Amos and Jesus walked into a bar, what would their conversation be? Particularly, where would Amos and Jesus agree, and where would they differ?” All this is really to ask, “What were we to do with Amos’ message in our day, as people who honor Amos, but are disciples of Jesus?”
An Imagined Conversation …
Amos: You know, Jesus, the time I lived in was full of hope and possibility. We were at peace with our neighbors, so trade was flourishing. The economic tide was rising. People were eating “high on the lamb.” I could hardly keep up with demand even from my vast flocks. At first I thought that God was finally blessing us for our faithfulness. But as I looked around, I could see that not everyone was benefitting together. In fact, the poor were getting poorer, not wealthier. No matter how hard they worked, it seemed like their feet were shackled to the floor of the ocean in that rising economic tide. Prices were rising, but the incomes of those who worked as day laborers and other hired hands were not. And no one was remotely worried about it, except the poor themselves. I knew God was angry about it, so I spoke out.
Jesus: I came seven centuries after you, Amos – after Israel failed to heed your message and create a more just society. By my time, the tribes of northern Israel were long gone – conquered by the Assyrians. Many were sent into, exile never to return again.
Amos: So I was right! God’s wrath was fulfilled! The “Day of the Lord” that everyone looked forward to was a day of darkness, not light!
Jesus: I wouldn’t call it the Day of the Lord. I would call it the Day of Sargon II, the Assyrian emperor. He wiped out Israel, not God.
Amos: Okay, you got me on a technicality. Surely, Sargon was acting as an instrument of God’s wrath.
Jesus: No, Sargon was acting out of his own wrath. But that’s another story. God did not rejoice on that day. God wept.
Amos: Didn’t you read my book? I saw the Lord standing beside the altar in the Temple, and he said:
Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake,
and shatter them on the heads of all the people;
and those who are left I will kill with the sword;
not one of them shall flee away,
not one of them shall escape.
The evil that had been created in Israel was systemic. Those who had all the advantages were oppressing those who had none. And they were doing it all perfectly legally, going about their workaday lives without any feelings of guilt or shame over what was happening. The only way God could save Israel was to destroy it and start over. I foresaw that Israel would be destroyed, and only after they had been made to share in the fate of the poor – when their own heads had been ground into the dust of the earth – could they be rebuilt and flourish. That’s how God works. You of all people should know this. There is no resurrection until there is death. Israel had to die in order to be reborn.
Jesus: I agree with your assessment of Israel’s sin, and I agree that the remedy was death, only Israel never did die – at least not in the way God wanted them to.
Amos: Have you had one bottle of beer too many, Jesus? You yourself just said that Israel was conquered just as I had foreseen. Masses of people died just as I predicted. They received their just reward.
Jesus: Huge numbers of Israelites did die at the hands of Sargon II, Amos. Yet you yourself just said that the way God works is through death and resurrection. The resurrection you foresaw – Israel rebuilding its ruined cities, planting vineyards and drinking their wine, planting fields and enjoying the fruits of their labors – never happened. The Ten Tribes of the north never recovered. They were dead or dispersed, never to return. Eventually, even the south was taken over – first by the Assyrians, later by the Babylonians, still later by the Persians and Greeks, and in my day they were under Roman occupation. So if the people had truly died in the way God had envisioned it, then where was the resurrection of Israel that you had foreseen?
Amos: I’m really not sure. The visions I received were crystal clear that the people had to die, and after that they would just as surely be reborn. Our God may be a God of wrath, but God is also One who would never forget God’s own people. They would be reborn into a just and righteous society!
Jesus: Surely, God did not forget God’s people, Amos. But just as surely, the kind of death you thought God was seeking for the people never took place.
Amos: I’m really not following you, Jesus. You just said that masses of people died by the sword of Sargon.
Jesus: Indeed. They did die by the sword. What’s more, those who remained became more committed than ever to the exact program you asked them to follow. They sought with all their might to “let justice flow like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” They made stricter laws. They punished injustice more heavily than ever. In my day, their battle cry was “Purity!” They sought to create a “moral majority” – a majority that followed God’s law more strictly than any Israelite society before them. They not only followed the laws, but made them stricter. Not only did they refrain from working on the Sabbath, they made so many rules to avoid even the suggestion of work that you could hardly step out of your own house to draw a bucket of water before you would be fined and excluded from worship until you made a sacrifice for your sin. Those caught in the act of adultery weren’t just reprimanded. They were stoned to death. Even those who suffered from disease were ostracized from the community because there was merely a possibility that God was angry for some sin they had committed. Their whole idea was that if they just became the society you envisioned, being purely just, and purely righteous, then God would send their long-awaited Messiah who would lead them in battle against the Romans and establish Israel as a Light to the Nations.
Amos: Well, Israel may not have experienced resurrection as soon as I had envisioned, but surely the destruction set them going on the right path. You just said that they committed themselves more strongly than ever to following God’s Law. It may have taken longer than I foresaw, but the Messiah did come as a result.
Jesus: God did send me at that time, but not because they had achieved any kind of true purity. In fact, the harder they strove to overcome their sin, the more sinful they became. All it did was make them unusually good rule-followers, not God-lovers. Placing The Law above all else allowed people to exploit each other worse than before. It gave the rule-followers justification to exploit and degrade anyone who, in their opinion, wasn’t as pure as they were. They thought they were just doing God’s bidding, making life hard on folks in order to “teach them a lesson” so they would change their ways. In so doing, they imposed burdens upon the “unrighteous” that they themselves would never lift a finger to help with. They lost all sense of compassion, seeking only to remove the speck from their brother’s and sister’s eyes while ignoring the log in their own, all the while feeling like they were God’s righteous gift to humanity. They didn’t open doors to relationship with God. They blocked them entirely by replacing love for God with fear of punishment.
Amos: Then why did you come at all?
Jesus: I came to invite them all to die – the good and bad alike.
Amos: Ah, I get it. Nothing had really changed since my day. When evil infects the entire system, even those who may be good as individuals are actually participating in a larger system that produces great evil. Since the system still hadn’t changed by your time, it needed to be torn down again. Everyone had to die, more even than before.
Jesus: The system did indeed need to be torn down, only it wasn’t the system you envision. Nor is the death I was inviting them into the kind of death you envision.
Amos: I’m not following. I think I could use another drink – or two!
Jesus: You see, Amos. God doesn’t want perfection. Never has, never will. Human beings will never live up to God’s standards, no matter how hard they try. So instead, what God asks for is not rule-following, but relationship. God is willing to endure the failures of God’s people so long as they honestly seek relationship – with God and with others they deem “unjust” and “unrighteous.” God loves people too much either to cut them off from relationship or to have them cut off relationship with others. What loving parent ever gives up on their children even when those children stray far from the path?
Amos: Wait a minute. This God you speak of sounds woefully “soft on sin.” If people aren’t afraid of suffering the consequences for sin, all they’ll do is take advantage of it. They’ll sin all the more thinking God is a pushover, loving them no matter what they do!
Jesus: The only people who will “sin all the more” are people who are already convinced of their own righteousness. It’s amazing how blind people can be to their own sin when they’re convinced that they’re more righteous than everyone else.
Amos: So how did you carry out God’s plan? How did you convince people that they are loved as they are without unleashing more of the very injustice and unrighteousness that God hates?
Jesus: By killing them.
Amos: There you go talking about death again when you insist that God loves even sinners!
Jesus: The kind of death I invited people to experience was not that kind of death. The kind of death God wanted people to experience was not physical death. As you can see from Israel’s history, they got plenty of that kind of death, but it did nothing to create a more just or righteous world. If anything, it made things worse, not better. The only death that causes a person to truly act in a righteous manner is when they die to a sense of their own righteousness.
Amos: That doesn’t make sense. How can you act righteously when you are really unrighteous?
Jesus: Amos, let me tell you a story. There was once a woman who interrupted a dinner hosted in my honor by one of the religious leaders of my time. Tearfully, she knelt down and washed my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. The Pharisee recognized who she was. She was a local prostitute. He rose to his feet and ordered her out of the house. I invited her to stay.
Amos: How did the Pharisee respond?
Jesus: He was shocked, as you can imagine – as shocked as you would have been. But she left that house after dinner as a New Creation. She was reborn. From that day forward, she strove with everything she had to offer people the same grace and compassion that she had received.
Amos: So the grace you offered by allowing her to eat with you changed her heart?
Jesus: It did, but not without killing her first. At the moment when she realized that she was being loved as she was, without any requirement to change her ways – without me giving her a laundry list of sins she must address before she could bask in my mercy – something inside her died. What died was her separation from God – a separation that she had imposed, not God. For years, she hid from God. She kept God far off because she was convinced that God could not possibly love her. If she ever drew near to God, she was convinced she would face the kind of God you wrote about, whose love was eclipsed by God’s righteous wrath. When she encountered God for who God really was, through the simple table fellowship I extended, she died to her own need to keep God far off. All she ever wanted to live for after that was God.
Amos: Okay, so it may have worked with her, but I’m aware of another story you’ve told. You once spoke of a man who owed a great debt to his master, who came begging for forgiveness of that debt and was granted forgiveness by his master just like you did with that woman. But the next thing he did was shake down one of his own debtors for owing him a paltry sum. He didn’t change a bit! If forgiveness is God’s program like you claim, it clearly didn’t work in his case.
Jesus: Sadly, it didn’t. Like I said, it is amazing how much injustice may be inflicted by those who are still convinced of their own righteousness. That man took the master’s grace for granted, like he was worthy of it somehow. You yourself know how people can suddenly come upon huge, unmerited blessing and move from gratitude to entitlement in a blink of an eye. They become more self-righteous even than before, like they are God’s gift to humanity. God can’t control what a person does with grace, nor does God want to. God only ever acts out of God’s own, loving nature. If people accept God’s gift in the manner in which it is offered, they begin to act of their own loving nature, too. Otherwise, they just become jerks.
Amos: So if people can be forgiven a few debts and still act like jerks, how can God’s plan possibly work? How will people ever die to self-righteousness if they can just do as they please with God’s grace?
Jesus: People never die to self-righteousness if they’re forgiven a few debts. They only die when they realize the extent of debts they owe and are forgiven of all of them.
Amos: I’m still having a hard time wrapping my mind around all this. But obviously you were effective. In the two thousand years since your coming, billions of people have been overjoyed to follow you. How did you convince masses of people that their debts are all cleared? How did you invite them to die to their unrighteousness and receive God’s love and grace?
Jesus: By dying for them when they wouldn’t do it themselves.
Amos: Dying for them? Oh, now I get it. I’ve heard many Christians explain this, now that I think of it. You came as God’s own son, taking all the wrath God was storing up for humanity upon yourself as an innocent, and therefore perfect, sacrifice. You let God kill you in their place, at the Cross.
Jesus: No, humanity put me on the Cross, not God. I did not let God kill me or take God’s wrath upon myself. I let humanity kill me, taking humanity’s wrath upon myself. I took upon myself the very punishment that all the “righteous” felt that all the “unrighteous” deserved.
Amos: Did people have any inkling what they did when they put God’s Anointed on that Cross? By crucifying you, God’s Messiah, they surely committed a crime worse than any other. They proved themselves to be far guiltier than anyone who ever lived in my day!
Amos: It’s no small wonder that God didn’t wipe out the whole earth after they killed you.
Jesus: Amos, you’re still thinking like a human being, not God. You keep insisting that God’s answer to unrighteousness is wrath; that God’s answer to sin is punishment. But God’s answer to sin is grace. The only thing that ever truly breaks a human heart is a love too great to be contained within it.
Those who realized what had been done to me realized their own participation in my death, whether they personally put me on the Cross or not. They could see within themselves their own sense of righteousness, and how every bit of it only ever crucifies me time and time again. Over the centuries, those who accepted their participation in my death have also received my response to it. They know firsthand what it is like to owe God everything, with no ability to repay a fraction of it, and to have those debts cancelled. For good. Forever. They come to know themselves to be loved beyond their wildest imagination, and the barriers come down. They are reborn. They become new creations.
Soon they begin treating others with the same grace and mercy. They become Kingdom builders – a part of my ongoing resurrection. They build not out of any need to please God, but because they know God is already pleased and thus even when they fail, all that is necessary is to receive again what is already theirs and try once more.
Amos: Then woe is to me. I thought I was working for God by promising God’s wrath upon the unrighteous. But if you are right, I am the worst of sinners. I convinced people that they must fear God, not love God!
Jesus: Amos, God’s grace is so great that even the worst of human sin is redeemable. You may have been wrong about God’s wrath, but you were perfectly right about how corrupt society had become and the pain they created. You may be surprised to hear this, but I love your little book. Your unflattering words held a mirror to people and showed them an image they did not wish to see. Even when they pushed back, you did not flinch or try to paint a rosier picture. What they saw was an image of people who were convinced of their own righteousness, who even managed to act righteously now and again, who nevertheless supported a larger system that created immeasurable evil. The problems you identified were very real – and still are to this day.
If people read your little book and become convinced of their own sin, then perhaps they will see just how they participate with others in crucifying me again and again. Perhaps they will despair of their own sense of righteousness and truly die – not the physical death you envisioned, but the spiritual death that opens them to grace and leads to resurrection.
Amos, you may not have understood the whole story, but I died for you on that Cross every bit as much as I died for everyone else. You did God’s work, and you did not do God’s work. And you are loved just as much as anyone else who is just like you, doing God’s work and not doing God’s work.
Amos: How can I ever repay you, Jesus? How can I ever give back the grace you have given me?
Jesus: That’s for you to decide. Once you have died in God’s grace, you are able to live in response to God’s love.
Amos: Well, I know how I’m going to start. Bartender! The next round is on me. I’m buying drinks for all the unrighteous in this bar!
Jesus: You mean you’re buying drinks for the whole house?
Bartender: Jesus Christ! You’re paying for all the people here?
Jesus: No, I’ve already paid everything I can. This round is on Amos.