Connections 07.21.2019: Starving for the Word of the Lord

Amos 8:1-12

Vacation Bible School (VBS) season is winding down.

I grew up in the era when VBS food consisted of cookies and Kool-Aid.

I pastored in the era when churches served full meals featuring such items as hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken strips, submarine sandwiches, and pizza.

Some churches these days are serving the children healthy snacks.

Whatever the menu items, VBS always involves food.

Some parents send their children to as many Vacation Bible Schools as they can find. There are worse ways for children to spend a summer.

VBS not only serves physical food. It also serves spiritual food in the form of God’s word. The “B” in VBS does, after all, stand for “Bible.”

We can’t imagine VBS without food, either of the physical or spiritual varieties. VBS without the Bible would just be Vacation School, and we wouldn’t need the church for that.

Imagine living without the word of God.

Speaking through Amos, God said that “a famine of hearing the words of the Lord“ was coming. This was part of the judgment that God was going to send on the people because of their mistreatment of the poor and needy (vv. 4-6).

God says that the people will go all over the place “seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (v. 12). God apparently won’t let them.

But I wonder if they would have recognized the word of the Lord if they’d come across it. They had reached this crisis point, after all, by denying that the word of the Lord that came to them through Amos and others was in fact the word of the Lord.

They’d failed to listen to it. They’d failed to take it seriously. They’d failed to recognize it for what it was.

If you do that long enough, you won’t know it when you hear it.

In the lectionary’s Gospel reading for this week, Martha asked Jesus to tell her sister Mary, who was listening to Jesus teach, to help her with the hosting work. Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Lk 10:41b-42). Whatever else Jesus means, he surely means that listening to his words is vital.

I sometimes wonder how well we listen to Jesus’ words. I say that because so many church folks and church leaders seem to think, talk, and act in ways that don’t reflect the teachings that Jesus shared through his words, his life, and his death.

If we ignore or distort Jesus’ words and ways long enough, we won’t know them when we hear or see them.

But if we consistently and persistently listen to and follow Jesus’ words, we’ll live, love, and serve more and more in his ways.

And people who are hungry for the word of the Lord—whether or not they know they are—may just find it by watching us.

Discussion

  1. Why do you think prophets delivered horrible news like that in verses 1-3? What purpose did such words of judgment serve?
  2. The words in verses 4-7 assume the economic practices and terminology of ancient Israel. What kinds of terms and practices might a preacher use to make the same points today?
  3. Speaking through Amos, the Lord declares, “I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation” (v. 10). This will happen as a result of judgment. Are we ever guilty of feasting when we should be mourning and celebrating when we should be lamenting? If so, what might be the reasons? Would we do well to incorporate more lament into our worship? If so, what should we lament?
  4. What could cause us to experience “a famine…of hearing the words of the Lord“? What positive steps can we take and practices can we develop to prevent such a famine from coming?

Reference Shelf

Famine is the severe shortage of food over a long period of time. In the OT, famine is normally caused by the failure of rain and, thus, of the crops. Other causes of famine included repeated insect damage to crops or wartime conditions which prohibited the people from tending their crops. In antiquity, grain could be stored in pits and such stockpiles could sustain a community through one year beyond the year of harvest. However, if the fields did not produce or if the crops could not be harvested the second year, the situation soon got desperate. Perhaps it was such a situation that evoked the lament from Jeremiah, ”The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (Jer 8:20). The only recourse in such cases was to go to a region which had food, as the sons of Jacob did (Gen 42: 1) when they went to Egypt. Of course, in times when cities were besieged by an enemy the population could not leave to get food. Starvation ensured and, in some cases, the people resorted to cannibalism (2 Kgs 6:24-31). Famine in varying degrees must have been a frequent experience in ancient Israel. It is routinely mentioned along with the sword and pestilence as a common cause of death (Jer 34: 17). The prophet Joel describes in vivid detail a locust scourge which devoured the crops and the resulting religious response which sought God’s help (Joel 1-2). Even if Joel used the language of famine to describe the destruction wrought by an enemy, it is clear that the ravages of famine provided the imagery. Jeremiah and Ezekiel both viewed famine as a punishment from God sent upon a rebellious people (Jer 14:13ff.; Ezek 5:16). Habakkuk used the worst-case scenario of a famine to assert his faith in God (Hab 3: 17ff.)

Joe O. Lewis, “Famine,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 296.

8:4-6. The beginning words (“Hear this”) echo 3:1; 4:1; 5:1. They introduce an indictment (8:4-6) focused on Israel’s mistreatment of the poor and needy (see 2:6-8; 5:10-13; 6:1-7). Amos quotes their own words (8:5-6), and so they indict themselves! The focus of this description is not on the political or legal system but on Israel’s commercial life (in our terms, “the business community”). These texts reflect an increasing divide between the rich and the poor; wealth is often gained on the backs of the disadvantaged (yes, the poor can prey on the poor, but that is not the basic issue for Amos).

The merchants and traders in particular are described in rapacious terms, out to get every penny possible from those who are forced to eke out a living with limited resources. These shopkeepers can hardly wait until the new moon rest days (see Num 10:10) and sabbaths are over—they are missing out on a full day of profits!—so that they can reopen their shops and work on their earnings. They do not care what happens to the poor. This attitude suggests a deep hypocrisy regarding their religious practice; they participate in worship only to enable their businesses to thrive (see 5:21-24). Business ethics be damned! Their cheating is manifold, with rigged containers/scales for measuring food and money (in modern terms, their scales register a pound as 151⁄2 ounces). This practice, which the law prohibits (Lev 19:35-37; Deut 25:13-16), is sharply condemned by other prophets (Hos 12:7; Mic 6:9-11).

The language of 8:6 (echoing 2:6) speaks of forcing those who cannot pay their bills—even small bills, worth no more than a pair of sandals!—into debt slavery. The segment ends with a note about selling the “sweepings of the wheat” (chaff ); we would call it the bottom of the barrel, where the least valuable food has settled. A contemporary example would be selling hamburger with a high percentage of fat, particularly in the stores that serve the poorer sections of town.

Terence E. Fretheim, Reading Hosea-Micah: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the Old Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2013), 151-52.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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