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Dangerous Questions

2011 November 17

In the traditional Jewish service for Passover, it is assumed that children will ask questions about why the family is partaking in a meal of remembrance. The service states that there are four types of children asking questions – the wise child, the wicked child, the innocent child, and the child who does not yet know what to ask. Contrary to what many Christians who are fixated on right doctrine might assume, the wicked child is not the one asking forbidden questions that challenge static absolute truths. The wicked child is instead the one who refuses to ask questions – the one who doesn’t engage and therefore places herself outside the community. It is a poignant reminder that wrestling with the hard aspects of faith and even being consumed with doubts and questions is a far better place to be in than one who has stopped asking questions. Challenging the status quo through engaged reflection on one’s faith implies that one is still on the trajectory of discipleship – seeking to ever discern what it means to follow after God even when it might unsettle the assumptions of the community.

It was this wickedness, this failure to care about what God cares about by challenging the status quo, that Amos witnessed when he came to Jerusalem. A poor herdsman from Judah, Amos was part of a population that was subservient to Israel at the time. Judah therefore bore the brunt of the expenses of Israel, with the poor and needy being trampled to cover the expenditures of those in power. Through the manipulation of debt and credit, the wealthy had amassed more and more of the land at the expense of poor landowners. Some scholars believe that the only thing that would have even brought a poor shepherd like Amos to Jerusalem was the requirement that he pay tribute to those that controlled his lands at an official festival. But what a struggling working class man saw in Jerusalem was a population that not only lived in extravagance, but one that had stopped asking questions about if they were living in the ways of the Lord. In fact they not only had stopped asking questions about whether their lifestyles based on the oppression of the poor reflected God’s desires, they had been told by the powers that be that it was not proper (or permitted) to ask questions that challenged the ways of Israel.

Seeing this abandonment of the faith in the guise of apathy moved Amos, who was not a religious professional, to speak the word of the Lord to Israel. Although the governing religious hierarchy told him to not prophecy against the ways of Israel, Amos knew he could not remain silent about the injustices he saw. He saw the people doing religion as normal while the poor were exploited on their behalf and knew they had rejected their God. So the message he was given to deliver on the streets of Jerusalem was that God hates their worship gatherings and the noise of their praise songs because they have given up on caring about what it actually means to be God’s people. Amos tells them

Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches,… who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!”

Not caring about how their lives and not just their ritual gatherings are caught up in following God had turned Israel into the wicked child at Passover. They enjoyed the prosperity injustice allowed them and therefore had accepted the injunction against questioning the practices of the government and economic system. They went through the motions of liturgy without doing the actual work of wrestling with the questions of the faithful. Amos called them to instead to stop exploiting the poor and let justice roll across the land. He begged them to ask the hard questions of themselves and of their rulers – to be disciples despite the cost.

But questioning the status quo is dangerous. Jerusalem had no interest in hearing the word of the Lord that challenged their economic prosperity. The powers that be moved to silence his prophecy and evicted Amos from Jerusalem.

And yet his witness stands as scripture. Thanks be to God.


2 Responses leave one →
  1. November 17, 2011

    Very insightful and timely. Thank you.

  2. Dom permalink
    November 17, 2011

    Thanks for a very nice post! I believe that Amos and Jeremiah are speaking to 21st Century America as much as they were to ancient Israel.

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