“Off with you, visionary…never again prophecy in Bethel.” (Am 7:12–13) Amaziah, Beth el, Amos, Israel, Judah…. Isn’t it often the case that the first reading from the Old Testament is this jumble of odd names and places – and not enough of the story to really know what is going on? Let me fill you in.
This whole scene takes place well after the time of King David when the 10 northern tribes have broken away from David’s and his successors, forming the nation called Israel – leaving 2 tribes in the south to form the nation of Judah. The folks up north in Israel have built a rival capital to Jerusalem and even a rival temple – Beth El – literally, the “House of God” – and it has been that way for more than a hundred years.
Still – the people of the North are God’s people even if they are seriously going astray. They have begun to integrate foreign gods into their temples and worship, the rich are getting way richer , the poor increasingly so. Israel is failing in all the classic measures of a society – how the widows, poor, orphans, aliens and strangers are cared for. In the mindset of all this, God raised up the prophet Amos to go north to Israel and remind them what their God truly desires.
So… let’s see: Bethel, Amos, Israel, Judah…. that leaves only Amaziah. Amaziah was a priest serving in Israel’s version of a national worship place – officially sponsored by the government and funded by the ruling class. Amaziah is an insider; someone in the know. We should not assume that Amaziah was a corrupt priest. Indeed, the text portrays him as a committed priest, trying to be loyal and faithful – but loyalties can blur.
The temple had been running smoothly in terms of worship and sacrifice. However, in God’s eyes, such religious activity has no meaning if practiced without conversion of heart and commitment to justice. Here is the Word of God just two chapters before our reading: “I despise your festivals, and take no delight in your solemn festivities…. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Am 5:21–24). The prophets Isaiah and Micah give the same warnings. Risky business for the prophets.
But Amaziah thinks things are going well. Perhaps he is even encouraged when the prophet Amos shows up and denounces Israel’s enemy neighbors, like the residents of Damascus, Tyre and Judah. Amaziah probably thinks: “hey, we are doing good!” But then Amos unleashes God’s judging word on Israel.
Amaziah does not like this critique. This situation sets the stage for our first reading: “Amaziah, priest of Bethel, said to Amos, ‘Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah…never prophecy in Bethel; for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple’” (6:12–13). …Hmmm?…. the “king’s sanctuary and royal temple?” See how loyalties blur – what is called Beth-El, “the House of God” now seems to first be the place of the king. It is easy to hear a voice that challenges, instantly dismiss the speaker as disloyal, in error, or a corrupter – and not really listen, understand, and see if our own vision is a bit blurred.
Such blurred vision is ultimately deadly within any institution. Within any institution there is often a covert – or even overt – pressure to be “loyal.” That was the case in the Archdiocese of Boston when the church’s child abuse scandal broke open. Seven years ago when Chief Justice Roberts cast the swing vote to declare the constitutionality of the Affordable Health Care Act – suddenly the conservative blogs and pundits were questioning his loyalty. Recently more Justices came under the same lens. When Vice-President Pence ratified the results of the Electoral College – he was branded disloyal. Of course, the first question that should be raised is, loyal or disloyal to what/who?
It is always good to question ourselves about any blur factor in our faith. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me, “a priest told me that if I don’t celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving Eucharist each time, it is a sin.” A priest said it, it must be true, right? Hopefully, yes. But in this case, no. So, when I was asked I simply pointed the person to the catechism. CCC §1457 says we must confess our sins at least once a year if we are aware of serious or grave sins in our lives. In fact when you read that section of the catechism there is an amazing attention to the sacrament as a catalyst to conversion. §1435 “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right…” Sounds an awful lot like the words of God spoken by Amos. I might go so far as to say, God takes no delight in your confession, unless it is ultimately leading you to conversion. Would that be disloyal to say that? The penitent must have spoken to the other priest; who called and told me I was being disloyal to the Church, was teaching error, leading people astray, etc. We agreed to disagree.
Being disloyal is risky business. It is risky if you have not prepared yourself in prayer, wisdom, the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and in the true teachings of the Catholic Church. You risk leading people to other than life in Christ. In the Gospel, Jesus sent out the Twelve two by two into towns in order to extend his ministry. Empowered by Christ, they preached conversion. St. Mark tells us as well, “He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts.” The disciples had to rely on human good will and God’s grace. They were prepared by Christ and then traveled light, with hands open rather than closed, trusting in God and in no other security. Risky business.
But hey, that is the mission. You might be called disloyal by your Democrat colleagues because you are pro-life. But we are called to speak God’s word for Life. You might be called disloyal by your Republican colleagues because you favor increasing taxes to support help to the poor, the homeless and the needy. But we are missioned to call for a morally centered budget. You might be called a disloyal Catholic because you support the risky ministry. Because you support or don’t support the bishops. Because you don’t protest, or because you do protest. It is all risky business. And it is our business. Even if you are just a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees like Amos. But he was loyal to God and faithful to his mission. He risked it for God’s kingdom. No blurry vision there. How about us? Will we risk it? That’s the question. And this is what God truly desires.
It is indeed risky business.