“They hate the one who convicts the guilty at the city gate, and they despise the one who speaks with integrity. Therefore, because you trample on the poor and exact a grain tax from him, you will never live in the houses of cut stone you have built; you will never drink the wine from the lush vineyards you have planted. For I know your crimes are many and your sins innumerable. They oppress the righteous, take a bribe, and deprive the poor of justice at the city gates.”
— Amos 5:10-12 (CSB – Read the chapter)
What is it that gets you the most worked up? What is it that when you see it happen, you get all fired up and take a while to calm down? What makes you angry? Whatever this thing is, it’s a clue to what’s most important to you. Now, if this thing is something pretty trivial, it may be an indicator that you’ve got some priorities in need of straightening out. Knowing what is most important to you matters, though, because it allows you to set some direction for your life. What we get in these three verses from Amos is a picture of one of the things that is most important to God.
And what is this thing? In a word: Justice. The God revealed in the pages of the Scriptures is a just God. Justice is one of His primary characteristics. That, along with goodness, love, and holiness, are the characteristics from which other characteristics like mercy and honesty flow. When it comes to the matter of sin, He’s not a fan of any of it, but sins of injustice get Him worked up further and faster than just about anything else.
And the thing about injustice, is that it is not always as obvious as some other sins are. It’s easy to convince ourselves that everything is okay when the reality is that it couldn’t be further from okay. This was the trap into which the people of Israel had fallen, and it is one we need to be wary of ourselves.
At the time Amos was doing his prophetic work, from the outside looking in, Israel was in fine shape. They were economically prosperous. Their military was strong. They were keeping up religious appearances. Everything seemed like it was in place. Yet that is just the moment when decadence can begin to grow in a culture.
Decadence is like a weed in a beautiful garden. When things are looking good and stable and even righteous, we begin to ease back on the throttle of the things that have allowed prosperity to flourish. But the kick here is that the things which have allowed prosperity to grow are not necessarily those we might first expect. And, when we let go of a commitment to things like justice and the rule of law, of honesty and a concern for the bottom radiating down from the top; when we start looking out first for ourselves and using others to advance our interests at the expense of theirs, the seeds of our destruction have been sown.
This was where Israel found themselves. The rich were exploiting the poor. They were not interested in justice, but in whatever was going to advance their own interests. In fact they, they hated seeing justice done if it didn’t serve them. And the way this worked out was to the favor of the rich and against the poor. That’s always how it goes.
And God hates it.
No culture will last long when the poor are exploited and trampled under the feet of the rich. Every culture will have its rich and its poor. That’s simply part of life. But when the rich use their wealth to take opportunities from the poor to work to see their needs met adequately, there will be a rot growing up in it that will eventually spell disaster.
Our God is passionate about the poor and so must His followers be. What this looks like exactly is going to change from culture to culture and place to place, but it must be on our radar. Our constant commitment must be to serving the least, last, and lost in our midst. Our efforts must be to see justice flourish and righteousness grow. This cannot be forced from the top down as some would argue as forced charity is not charity at all and breeds ingratitude and resentment in a culture. Instead, it must be nurtured from the ground up. Our commitment to justice in all its forms must flow out of our relationship with our just God.
The challenge then becomes this: Are we aware of the issues of justice in our midst? Are we aware of the plight of the poor? Are we aware of the struggles of the alien? Do the disadvantaged appear on our radar? Can we even sympathize with their striving? Let us start there. And then, as we grow in our love for them—a reflection of our just God’s own love for them—we can follow Him into wise action on their behalf. There are few things that honor Him more. Let’s get started.