Let justice roll down like waters (Horizons 6)

Lesson 6 — Amos 5:21-24

Amos’ words blast off the page with intensity. God through Amos sends a scathing critique of Israel’s life and worship. God says this to Israel: I hate, I despise your worship services and your holiday festivals. Your beautiful sanctuaries are meaningless to me. Your choirs and soloists sound like so much racket. Don’t turn in your pledge cards without dedicating your lives to the needs of the poor, the oppressed, the resident alien and the kids nobody wants. Work for a society in which all people have what they need to live and work. Let your lives be oceans of loving your neighbor and rivers of justice.

Let’s think about what justice means. In our culture, justice is concerned with the standards by which we protect the society as a whole and protect the rights of individuals. We have all kinds of laws to protect the common good. Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not speed through red traffic lights. If we repeatedly disobey traffic laws and get caught, our driver’s licenses will be taken away to protect others driving on the road. If we total someone’s car, then we (or our insurance companies) are responsible for getting a vehicle for the person whose car we wrecked. When the crime is grievous, the wrongdoer “pays” by going to prison to protect society.

Biblical justice does have laws to maintain the good of the whole community, but there are some significant differences between God’s justice and human justice. The “HarperCollins Bible Dictionary” says, “Justice is closely related to love and grace and provides vindication, deliverance and creation of community, in addition to retribution. Justice is a deliverance, rectifying the gross social inequities of the disadvantage. It puts an end to the conditions that produce the injustice.” God’s justice has special regard for the poor and weak. As God’s people, Israel was to protect the vulnerable: the widow, the orphan, the day laborer, those with disabilities, the resident alien.

In Leviticus 19:9-10, Israel was commanded not to reap to the edges of their fields nor strip its vineyard bare. Food was to be left in the field after the harvest for the poor to glean. Israel was to provide the means for the poor and the resident alien to have enough to eat. In biblical justice, if a landowner hauls in a person for stealing food, the landowner could be found guilty for not providing a means by which his neighbor could eat.

After the Vietnam War, a veteran was apprehended in the act of stealing groceries from a store. The veteran was charged and brought before a judge. The veteran explained that for months he had looked for work, but no one would hire him. The judge sentenced the veteran to job training. The judge had harsh words for a society that sends people to fight for their country and then casts them aside when they return. In sentencing the veteran to job training, the judge was acting according to biblical justice by giving what the man needed to provide for him and his family.

In Amos, Israel was condemned for oppressing the poor. This is all too easy to do, and the Unites States has a long history of brutality towards Native Americans, slaves, Hispanics and immigrants. In my city, the interstate highway cut through black neighborhoods because the residents there did not have the clout to get the plans changed. Today, we have a modern form of debtor’s prison. In the face of deficit budgets, some localities are charging higher court costs and leveling heavy fines for various non-criminal offenses to supplement the town’s income. When a poor person cannot pay the fines, penalties are added. The poor can end up in jail for traffic violations.

God vehemently rejected Israel’s worship because worship is not just gathering to sing, study and pray. Worship also includes how we live our lives and the society that we create.

Many churches participate in homeless shelters and food pantries, which provide for emergency needs. Some churches give small monetary grants to help people with fuel, utilities and rent assistance.

Emergency help is needed, but the greater challenge is changing the conditions that produce poverty and injustice: poor public education, low minimum wages, inadequate healthcare, the high incarceration rates for minorities, accessible public transportation. I invite you to explore some of the wonderful initiatives of the Presbyterian Hunger Program that address local and international needs.

What do you and your faith community do to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream?

rosalind-banburyROSALIND BANBURY is associate pastor for adult ministries at First Church in Richmond, Virginia.