7th Sunday after Pentecost — July 11, 2021

Amos 7:7-15
Pentecost 7B; Proper 10

Who are the prophets in your life? Whose critique do you listen to? Who do you trust to tell you the harsh truth?

Teri McDowell Ott’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

My husband often serves in this role for me. He appreciates my experience receiving critique in writing workshops because, as he says, I’m a more willing listener now than I was before. In these workshops, I recognized that if I wanted to grow in my writing skills, I had to be open, even eager, to hearing constructive criticism. The same is true if I want to grow in my relationships with others and my relationship with God.

I still don’t always receive my husband’s critiques well. He has to catch me in the right mood. He has to use the right tone. He has to start with a compliment, then offer the critique. He’s learned my rules over our past 20 years of marriage, but he doesn’t always follow them as precisely as I would like. Truth-telling is as hard to give as it is to receive.

Amos was tapped by God for this difficult task. He had to deliver harsh words of prophetic critique during a smooth and prosperous season. Amos enters the biblical scene during the long and peaceful reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 B.C.E.). Israel was economically prosperous and militarily secure. Life was so good that the people came to believe they deserved their prosperity, that God had rewarded them with special favor. Amos was dispatched to make it clear that their impression of themselves was not correct. They relied too much on the power of their military, too little on the power of God. They were unjust in their social dealings, abhorrently immoral, their worship shallow and meaningless. Amos came into the community like a firebrand. If he knew the rules about how to best offer constructive criticism, he didn’t care one whit about following them.

It also didn’t help that Amos was an outsider. He wasn’t a professional prophet. He was a shepherd, and a dresser of sycamores, incising its fruit to hasten ripening. Amos’ CV did not merit a hearing from a reluctant, defensive audience and Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, wasn’t having it. He reports Amos as a problem to King Jeroboam. “Amos has conspired against you,” Amaziah reports, “the land is not able to bear all his words.”

Amaziah’s choice of words intrigues me. He doesn’t say Amos is wrong. He doesn’t condemn Amos’ prophesy, or question that what Amos says comes from God. Amaziah says that the people cannot “bear his words,” which implies that he knows the people are not blameless in this prophetic rebuke. When a prophet of God speaks, the people are supposed to listen, even if listening is painfully difficult. Amos might try softening his approach. He might try starting with a compliment, then offering God’s critique. But if the people want to grow, they must be willing to listen. They must find it within themselves to “bear the words” if they really want to know God’s favor.

In her book, “Sister Outsider,” Audre Lorde remembers a moment at an academic conference where she spoke out angrily against racism. A white woman responded to her by saying, “Tell me how you feel but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you.” She might just as well have said, “I cannot bear your words.” Lorde didn’t tone her message down, though. She didn’t allow the white woman’s fragility to deflect or distract from calling out the racism. Instead, she responded with a question of her own: “Is it my manner that keeps her from hearing, or the threat of a message that her life may change?”

Amos’ harsh words for the ruling class of Israel’s northern kingdom coincide well with Lorde’s message. Amos preaches social justice, condemning one section of society for their oppressive treatment of another. These privileged elites may not like Amos’ harsh tone, but failing to listen, repent and change will result in Israel’s downfall. Later, in chapter nine, we hear Amos predicting Israel’s destruction. Today, systemic racism, white supremacy and nationalism threaten us. What is bad, what is dehumanizing, for one section of society, inevitably leads to the destruction and dehumanization of us all. Lorde and other thought leaders of color have, for centuries, been prophetically warning us of this existential threat. Are we willing to listen?

Questions for reflection:

  1. How did this passage intrigue, disturb, challenge, comfort, encourage or inspire you?
  2. Who serves as a prophetic truth-teller in your life? How do you listen to their critique?
  3. To whom have you not listened because you could not bear their words? How might you reposition yourself as a willing listener? What has to happen for you to be able to hear?

Want to receive Looking into the lectionary content in your inbox on Mondays?