To Live in Justice: The Message of Amos for Today

By Eldin Villafane, Ph.D.

If there is a word that describes our times, it is the word "crisis." A crisis describes a situation that is unstable, decisive or crucial in the personal or social life of a nation. It is interesting to note that the word "crisis" has its linguistic roots in the Greek word Krisis (and the verb Krino), and can mean "to select," "decide" or "judge", and can also mean "justice!" All crises are, in essence, moments of judgment, moments of searching for justice.
The Concept of Justice

Justice is a complex concept easier to sense than to define. It has multiple definitions according to the many existing schools of thought. Justice, as Karen Lebacqz reminds us, is "a bit like the proverbial elephant examined by blindfolded explorers. Each feels a different part, the foot, the ears, the tusks, and consequently each describes the beast differently, gnarled and tough, thin and supple, smooth and hard. The elephant itself [in this case justice] is not encompassed by any of the individual descriptions."

According to my "touch of the elephant," beyond Aristotle's definition of justice as the virtue of giving and receiving what one is due or what one has a right to, and beyond the valuable contributions of John Rawls or Robert Nozick, among others, there stands the richness of the biblical concept of justice. The Scriptures use various words to speak of justice, but mainly the words tsedek and mishpat in Hebrew and dikaiosyne in Greek. We can translate these words as "righteousness," "judgment" or "justice." Justice as tsedek speaks about a general living in right relationship with someone, while justice as mishpat is somewhat more particular. We can speak of mishpat as deciding what is "just" when two people differ or disagree or when one has injured the other. Dikaiosyne can have both of these meanings.

Furthermore, Scripture presents us a rich and nuanced understanding of justice. At heart, it speaks of a concept of justice that I want to underline, that is, justice as "fidelity to the demands of a relationship."

The picture that Scripture paints is that of the human person created in and for communion, created to live in community. In the Old Testament, above all, one sees the importance of living in relationship with God and with each other. Individuals were in relationship with God through the covenant that existed between God and his people. "As a member of this covenant community, each person was in relationship with every other person, including the poor and needy, one's family and even with strangers and aliens. Out of these relationships arose responsibilities and demands. The just person was faithful to these responsibilities and demands." As Gerhard Von Rad wrote, "There is absolutely no concept in the Old Testament with so central a significance for all relationships of human life as that of tsedek [justice]."

The Word of God presents justice ultimately as rooted in the righteousness of God. It is grounded in God's holiness and moral character, in God's very being. Our God is just and righteous in God's self and therefore faithful to God's self (as a triune God), and faithful to the demands of God's relationship with all creation. As the psalmist reminds us, "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne" (Ps. 89: 14), and "For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice" (Ps. 11: 7). Our God is a just God, a faithful God who keeps God's promises. Our God is a God who loves justice, a God who demands justice of all!
Justice in the Book of Amos

If there is one book in the Bible that speaks insightfully and relevantly to the issue of justice for our time, it is the book of Amos. At the heart of Amos' message is the call to live in justice. Amos had a passion for justice. He was a prophet "par excellence" of social justice.

The message of the book of Amos can be presented under three basic themes or theological motifs defined by justice, namely: (1) justice among the nations; (2) justice in the nation; and (3) justice and piety of a nation. We will look at each in turn.

1. Justice among the Nations. Amos begins by indicting various nations for their wickedness and injustice, beginning with the nation to the north of Israel (Syria), then moving on to the nations to the west (Philistia and Phoenicia), the south (Edom and Ammon), and the east (Moab), and finally indicting the sister nations, Judah and Israel.

In these early chapters and throughout the book of Amos, we are confronted by the fact that God calls all people, all nations to account for their behavior. God's standards of justice are universal, for they are rooted in God's righteousness, God's holiness, yes, God's character. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. puts it this way: "There was no monopoly held by any people, race or religion on righteousness; justice, goodness and truth were the standards for all mortals on planet earth or they would have to explain any deviations to Yahweh himself!"

It is important to note that the injustices committed by these nations are similar to the injustices that we tragically see today among the nations. Let me underline a few:

  •  Damascus (Syria) is accused of cruelty, violence, and atrocities because she has "threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron" (1:3).
  •  Gaza (Philistia) is accused of slave trading "because she took captive whole communities and sold them" (1: 6).
  •  Tyre (Phoenicia) is accused of breaking a covenant or treaty "because she... disregarded a treaty of brotherhood" (1:9).
  •  Ammon is accused of imperialism and atrocities "because he ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to extend his borders" (1:13).

Lamentably, each one of these injustices can be seen in our day and contributes to the reason why we live in times of global crisis:

  • Cruelty and violence among nations have been institutionalized and commercialized by the modern "threshing sledges of iron" that represent the lucrative market of weapons or armaments of war.
  • The slave trade is the cruel experience of the Sudan in Africa, where entire ethnic groups are sold in the market. In other cases, just as cruel, young girls and boys are sold into slavery and prostitution by the Asiatic market and others.
  • The breaking of treaties is seen clearly in many nations whose loyalty is dictated, not by covenant or treaty among sovereigns, but by the sovereign and universal globalization of the market. Modern treaties are not worth the paper on which they are written if the "god" Mammon reigns!

Sooner or later, what the nations sow, that they shall reap. God is still sovereign, over creation (5:8), over history (9:7), over the nations (1:3 & 2:6). God demands justice among the nations!

2. Justice in the Nation. As often happens in the history of nations, political stability and economic prosperity brought about self-sufficiency and indifference among the Israelites. But God placed a "plumb line" in Israel, with equal implications for Judah and for the nations. The "plumb line" revealed a society inclined toward idolatry, oppression, exploitation and violence, indeed, to injustice. Judgment would come on Israel, for

They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Amos 2:6-7

It is critically important for us today to understand that the standard of justice placed before the king and the dominant class (the governor, landowners, business people, judges and military), as well as all the people, is that of justice toward the poor. We will all be judged by how we treat the weakest members, this is the heart of Amos's message. Why is this so? I believe that the teaching of Scripture is clear (in Amos as in the other prophets) that beyond God's intrinsic love and championing for the stranger, widow, poor and needy lies also the reality of idolatry. As the commandments teach us: "I am the Lord your God... You shall have no other gods before me... for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God" (Exod. 20: 1-5).

While many of the Israelites may not have worshiped idols of wood or rock (as many may not today), yet they rendered "worship" to the god of wealth (Mammon). The desire and anxiety for riches (greed), an obsessive note in the lives of the dominant class, led to their oppression of the poor and needy and the corruption of the courts, the market, the religious system and the society at large. Washington Padilla reminds us that a central note of Amos was of "social injustice as the specific form that the sin of idolatry assumes in society.12 The lesson is clear: idolatry is at the heart of social injustice and the eventual downfall of a nation.

But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-falling stream. Amos 5: 24

A central concern in the book of Amos, and in all the biblical teaching about society, is that God has a passionate concern for justice for all, especially the poor, the weak and the oppressed members of society. God demands justice in the nation!

3. Justice and Piety of a Nation. The Israelites had forsaken the needy and oppressed. They pretended to worship the true God by the multitude of their offerings and gifts. They even excelled in the composing of music for temple worship (6: 5). There was a form of revival, yes, the temples were crowded yet it was an abomination to God. Listen to God's words:

I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream. Amos 5:21-24

Throughout Scripture we can find important truths about worship that relate authentic worship to our behavior toward the poor and oppressed. The words of Amos are echoed by the prophet Isaiah when he says:

Is such the fast that I choose a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice... to let the oppressed go free... ? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; When you see the naked, to cover them and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Isa. 58: 5-7

The fast or worship that pleases our God is accompanied by acts of mercy and justice toward the poor, the broken and the oppressed. Furthermore, such true worship has the great promises of God's blessings. The prophet Isaiah continues:

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer... The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Isa. 58: 8-9, 11

There is a seamless relationship between ethical behavior and true worship, between justice and piety. Who we are and how we behave are intimately related in our giving worth to our God. For true worship, whether expressed in our daily walk or in a building called a temple or church, must be "in spirit and truth" (John 4:23). In the New Testament, for example, we find these profound and disturbing words in Matthew 25:42-45:

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me." They will also answer, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?" He will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me."

There is a great mystery here, for as we serve with justice the poor and needy in our midst, we are in a deep yet spiritually profound sense doing it to the Lord. We are ascribing worth to our Lord. We are worshiping him. May our worship be in spirit and in truth. May we in our worship live in justice!

© Copyright 2010 Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. All rights reserved.