The book of Amos is a short one – just nine quick chapters and you’re done. But the fundamental challenge Amos addresses can be summed up far more quickly in a recent iPhone commercial by Sprint. Perhaps you’ve seen it. As a myriad of images streams by our eyes, an announcer offers his perspective on life:
The miraculous is everywhere. In our homes. Our minds. We can share every second in data dressed as pixels. A billion roaming photojournalists uploading the human experience and it is spectacular …
Spectacular it is! Amazing power is being placed into our hands that would have been considered downright magical – even godlike – throughout most of human history. As one observer has noted, even “a street fruit stall in Mumbai can access more information, maps, statistics, academic papers, price trends, futures markets, and data than a U.S. president could only a few decades ago.” (Juan Enriquez, The Human Face of Big Data, p. 19)
Just a few short years ago, our cell phones just did one thing: make calls. A few years before that, calls were made by “primitive” devices with rotary dials lashed to walls. And the cords attached to the earpieces were so short that you actually had to set the phone down in order to stir a pot of spaghetti sauce or answer the door. Of course, throughout most of human history, the idea that we could communicate with our voices beyond the distance we could shout would have been considered preposterous. Imagine how incredibly powerful you would have felt as recently as 1850 if you could hold a device no bigger than a deck of cards up to your ear and talk with someone on the other side of the planet! Imagine how constantly gifted and blessed you would feel by the magic in your hand.
But with every gift comes a challenge. With every opportunity to expand the human experience comes a threat to that very experience. Case in point? The rest of the iPhone commercial. Our iPhone user swiftly moves from feelings of exuberance over the astronomical power at his fingertips to feeling threatened by even the most modest limitation to that power. He asks:
… so why would you cap that? My iPhone 5 can see every point of view, every panorama, the entire gallery of humanity. I need to upload all of me. I need – no, I have the right – to be unlimited. Only Sprint offers truly unlimited data for iPhone 5. [See the commercial here: http://bit.ly/13QO8iB]
And here we have the human dilemma in a nutshell. In less than thirty seconds, we human beings move from gift to entitlement. We move from awe, wonder and humility to insistence that it is our basic right to possess everything we have and more. And if we don’t get what we feel entitled to, we obsess on what we don’t have rather than feeling grateful for what we do have.
As ultra modern as the technology is, it connects us to a very ancient problem. The Greeks called it hubris. Hubris is the basic operating principle behind every Greek tragedy ever written. The dictionary definition of hubris is “an excess of ambition, pride, etc., ultimately causing the transgressor’s ruin.” (By the way, I didn’t need a dictionary to find the definition – I looked it up instantly on the internet with my iPhone!)
The problem with hubris isn’t that we get egotistical. Hubris only starts with ego. It ends with us feeling like paupers in the midst of plenty. It ends with such a delusional view of reality that you can be standing in a banquet hall surrounded by the finest foods known to humankind but obsessing over the fact that someone neglected to provide Tiramisu for desert. Beware the person who feels like they’re starving to death for lack of Tiramisu!
Of course, none of us are like that, are we? We may not see ourselves this way, but how would someone from the 1850s view us … when the thermostat has been set five degrees lower than our absolute comfort zone … or when the electricity goes out for more than five minutes? For that matter, how would 2/3 of the world in 2013 view us when we complain about driving an automobile greater than 5 years old … or living in a home with fewer than four bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths, and a 70” flat screen television with surround sound? Would they relate to our angst over our kitchens not having granite countertops and stainless steel appliances? Or not having iPhones or at least a Galaxy 4S?
Starving for lack of Tiramisu.
When someone is surrounded by blessing and feels only curse, it is not only a threat to themselves but to others. How compassionate is someone toward others when they perceive themselves to be starving even when they’re surrounded by a banquet? How generous will a person be when they feel like they’re struggling just to get by when in fact they’re surrounded by possessions that 2/3 of the world considers absolute luxuries?
If you’re starting to perceive the delusion and the danger here, then you may be in a better position than you were a few minutes ago to understand the opportunity and promise offered by the prophet Amos. Amos’ words are frequently full of vitriol and sarcasm. But if we can see through the limitations of the messenger to hear the wisdom of the message, we will be in a far better position not only to enjoy the rich feast that surrounds us but to ensure that others have a place at the table who have been shut out of the banquet.
II. Long ago in a land far away …
Once upon a time there was a nation whose people experienced an extended period of economic prosperity. So much wealth was flowing into the country that not only did the rich become super rich, but the middle class experienced unprecedented levels of economic prosperity. They tore down the little bungalows that their families had owned for generations and built houses that would have been considered mansions by their grandparents. They grew accustomed to eating the finest foods. They sipped the rarest wines. They purchased works of art to adorn their homes and hired help to clean them.
I’m talking about 8th C BCE Israel, not modern America. The 8th Century was one of the rare times in Israel’s history when the people were not significantly threatened by the two superpowers on either side of them – Egypt and Mesopotamia. In fact, the superpowers were at relative peace with one another. Because they were at peace, there was enormous trade between them. Imagine a country half the size of Nebraska with the United States and China on either side of them. That was Israel in the 8th Century. And because Israel was situated geographically like a convenient land bridge between these two superpowers, the lion’s share of the traded goods passed through Israel.
If you could simply dip your finger into the flow of commerce passing through the Israel in the 8th Century – by taxing a portion of the trade route under your control or by selling goods and services to those engaged with trade or getting rich because of it – you could become wealthy beyond your dreams.
It was hard not to feel a bit unlimited in 8th Century Israel. You wouldn’t have an iPhone, but you might lie on a bed made of ivory. You might not be able to look up restaurant information in the palm of your hand, but you could hire servants who cooked and cleaned for you.
But there was a problem.
III. The Rising Tide
They say that a rising tide lifts all boats. In Israel, the tide was surely rising. But what if you didn’t own a boat? What if your feet were, in fact, shackled to the floor of the sea and the water at low tide was up to your neck? The tiniest wave would put you under. Unless you were attached in some way to the flow of wealth passing through Israel – wealth that would raise you up with the incoming tide – your only experience of the rising tide was through a rising cost of living.
I remember quite clearly the feeling of living in Scottsdale, Arizona, during the housing boom. The little house we had struggled to purchase back in 1995 with just barely enough money to make a down payment appreciated remarkably. I remember feeling both delighted and horrified by the experience. The more houses appreciated, the faster people sought to purchase them, causing bidding wars that drove the prices up still further. Within just a few short years we would have made several times my annual salary in a matter of days just by putting our house up for sale. Yet I couldn’t shake the awareness that if we hadn’t bought a home when we did, we would never have been able to afford to live in our modest neighborhood. We would have been permanently shut out of the very place we called home. Those who did not have the luxury of owning a home before the boom were like people whose ankles were anchored to the bottom of the ocean, at least when it came to homeownership.
In 8th C Israel, prices were rising, not just on houses but on virtually every good and service – including those necessary for survival. No worries if your income was rising to keep pace, but what if it wasn’t? Before long, you find yourself working just as hard as you ever did – or harder – and with less to show for it. And if you didn’t have much to begin with, you could swiftly find yourself underwater, struggling just to breathe.
That’s the situation a “sheep breeder” named Amos stepped into when he came up from Judah in the south and addressed the people of northern Israel. In our passage this morning, Amos accuses Israel of “selling the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals.” He further accuses Israel of laying down beside every altar on cloaks taken in pledge and sipping fine wine bought with fines they’d imposed.
These practices may seem a bit obscure, and therefore without parallel in our time, but with the Book of Amos, there’s always “the story” on the surface and then, like a Paul Harvey commentary, there’s “the rest of the story.” What is largely lost on us when we read Amos in English rather than Hebrew is the “rest of the story.”
For instance, the phrase “for silver” (as in “selling the righteous for …”) is an idiomatic expression in Hebrew. It means “for the going rate.” Amos is accusing the Israelites of selling the righteous poor for “the going rate.” The going rate likely was a commonly accepted, legal wage rate for day laborers – a wage rate that may have been adequate in “the good old days” when everyone was struggling, but in light of the “rising tide” Israel had experienced over many years, it was no longer adequate to ensure a person’s survival.
What do people do when they can no longer make enough money to survive on? Some turn to crime. But most people work harder. And what if you still can’t make enough to live on? Then you start borrowing money or pawning your possessions, hoping against hope that one day soon you’ll be in a position to pay back the loan. But what if you can’t?
Both borrowing and pawning seem to have been widespread practices in Israel by all kinds of people who were working harder than ever but still couldn’t make ends meet. Amos addresses this dilemma when he accuses Israel of selling the poor for “a pair of sandals.” This didn’t mean that rich people were selling poor people for a low rate of return, as most people assume, but something far worse. Trading sandals was a common way of sealing a business transaction. It proved that you hadn’t stolen the property you received. If you ever went to court, you could prove that the transaction had been legitimate by producing the other person’s sandal. “If the shoe fit …” then you could prove that you’d made a perfectly legal transaction
If your feet were anchored to the floor of the ocean and the rising tide of prosperity in 8th C Israel was pulling you under, you had to pawn or sell whatever you owned that had any significant value in order to put food on the table. Those anchored feet would be without sandals!
And what about that “cloak taken in pledge?” This was another legal move. In Israel, if a day laborer didn’t have enough money to feed the family, he would often seek a short term loan from a creditor, promising to pay him back at the end of the day when he got paid. To secure the loan, the borrower turned over his cloak as collateral. His cloak was his primary source of warmth at night, so the lender had high assurance that he would be paid on time. But what happened when the day laborer got sick, or had to leave the fields to attend to a sick child? Unable to pay back the loan, he would be bereft of his cloak. The lender had a perfect legal right to keep it. He could feel so comfortable that he was in the right that he could metaphorically lay down beside the altar in God’s temple upon that cloak.
IV. Amos and the iPhone Guy
Are you starting to get the picture? Amos’ issue with those he preached against weren’t that they were doing something illegal to benefit themselves over the poor. Rather, his problem was that the poor were in enormous danger of “going under” the rising tide, and it was all happening perfectly legally, with no one feeling like there was any problem because no one was breaking the law.
Many people who read the book of Amos assume that he has a problem with rich people; that he considers the rich evil and that they should give their possessions freely to the poor. They consider Amos a class warrior. This impression is given further weight by the fact that the Bible identifies Amos as a “sheep breeder.” Most shepherds in Israel’s time were dirt poor, so the assumption is that Amos was simply speaking out of self interest as someone who would benefit from a handout or two. Yet the word translated in English as “sheep breeder” isn’t the usual one to describe shepherds. Rather, this particular word only appears twice in the Old Testament – once to describe Amos and once to describe Mesha, the king of Moab, who is said to have delivered 100,000 sheep and 100, 000 rams annually as tribute to the King of Israel. Calling Amos a shepherd is a little like calling Jimmy Carter a peanut farmer!
Amos was almost certainly enormously wealthy. He didn’t seek to “soak the rich.” Amos is an angry prophet, to be sure. And his words make us as uncomfortable today as they did back then. But don’t confuse Amos’ anger with the assumption that he thinks having wealth is immoral – like many class warriors today seem to feel. Before you write off Amos as some sort of “liberal lefty,” consider the fact that as a wealthy person himself, likely with a lot of wealthy friends, Amos was in a better position than most to know the blessings wealth may bring and that wealthy are not fundamentally immoral. Also, Amos likely saw more clearly than most that people in his economic class were trying to do the best job they knew how at providing for their families, supporting their religious institutions, and supporting their country. Significantly, nowhere does Amos advocate that the rich give what they have to the poor. Jesus did, but not Amos—but that’s a different sermon. Nowhere does Amos suggest that the answer to poverty is to create massive entitlement programs, either. Likely, Amos would have been horrified by any system that promoted feelings of entitlement, for the poor as much as for the rich.
No, as I read Amos, the heart of the problem – and the heart his hope – goes back to the iPhone commercial we started with:
The miraculous is everywhere. In our homes. Our minds. We can share every second in data dressed as pixels. A billion roaming photojournalists uploading the human experience and it is spectacular, so why would you cap that? My iPhone 5 can see every point of view, every panorama, the entire gallery of humanity. I need to upload all of me. I need – no, I have the right – to be unlimited.
To Amos, who lived in an era of virtually unlimited prosperity, his message was informed by the notion that the only one who has the right to be unlimited is God. And instead of keeping unlimited blessing to God’s own Self, God has freely shared blessing and abundance with God’s Creation. The miraculous truly is everywhere. In our homes. Our minds. God has shared abundantly with us in order to benefit the entire gallery of humanity.
If Amos were alive today and could speak to the iPhone user in the commercial … Well, it might not be a pretty conversation. But the solution Amos might offer – or at least the solution I derive from Amos – is not that the iPhone user should give his iPhone away or sell it and give the proceeds to the poor, as if the poor are entitled to his iPhone and he is not. Rather, it is to truly appreciate the power he has in his hands.
The power that the average person has these days – whether they are iPhone users or not – is beyond what most kings and queens possessed throughout most of human history. Anyone with so much as a smart phone can “access more information, maps, statistics, academic papers, price trends, futures markets, and data than a U.S. president could only a few decades ago.” For many of us, a smart phone is just the beginning of a long list of powerful gifts we possess.
I think Amos’ message to the iPhone user in our commercial – and to you and me – would be: “Now that you have been given the power that even the U.S. presidents would envy just a few short years ago, what are you going to do with it? Will you serve yourself, or the Source of all true power? Will you spend your days chasing down your “right” to be unlimited, or will you spend your days blessing the world with the power that is now in your hand?