WILD FIGS AND MERCIFUL LIVING
Rev. Naomi King
July 11: Amos 7:7-17
Amos is sharing his understanding of God’s call to the people, a call to be measured by something greater than the highest of places attributed to Isaac and the holiest of places composing Israel. Naturally, this puts him in hot water, as it puts Amos in the position of speaking words that would require the king to become humble, like Amos himself. How do we know Amos is a regular person? God’s call explained as a plumb-line might be one hint, but Amos’ claim himself that he does not belong to the courtly prophets, but is only a simple dresser of sycomore trees and goatherd, the activities of the poor far outside the city. The sycomore is one of the oldest forms of fig trees, which some believe to be the Ancient Egyptian tree of life, and although a producer of quality figs, was not the cultivated fig trees producing less seedy, softer, and sweeter figs. This is where some commentators will suggest that Amos is making a comparison that the people are like the sycomore fig, inferior in quality, which is a rather strange thing to suggest, when we look at Amos’ understanding of a plumb-line different from what society ascribes as the measurement of success. Indeed, because Amos is instructed to draw our attention away from the successes and social distinctions of humanity, and back to the greater values of God, reading the sycomore as a symbol of inferiority is reading from Jeroboam’s point of view, not Amos’. Amos is recalling us to a simpler way of life, to measure our lives and ourselves in relationship with God, with restoration of all the holy places, not just ones set aside by wealthy people, with food that feeds the many like a little goat and the easily dried often wild figs, not the few who can afford fancy figs and fattened bulls. This is how God is not passing us by, but continuing with us, even as the current social order is shaken up, and people have to change how they live, whether they wish to do so or not. One might ask: how would we apply this passage in a world affected by global climate change and an economic system based on ever-increasing wealth and consumption? We who resist radical change to a humbler way of life can seem rather like the gods stumbling about in incomprehension and misunderstanding in Psalm 82, when God calls on these who style themselves as gods to “Give justice to the weak and orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” The wicked are those who don’t want things to change, who continue to allow the weak – those most adversely affected by inequalities and changing environments – to perish. Psalm 82 and Amos sing chorus and refrain here: save the humble through humbling yourself. Jesus and Paul will pick up this song of mercy, and Psalm 25 and Deuteronomy guide us back through how we have erred.
The fear Amaziah, Jeroboam and the fear Luke’s priest and Levite suffer are fears of losing their place, of dispossession of their power and measure by earthly plumb-line. Fear of not having enough is an old fear, and underneath our systems of inequity, that fear thrives, particularly well enforced by those who can easily lose their places granting enough. I think that’s why the Deuteronomists (who also bring us Leviticus, Numbers, and the editing of Genesis and Exodus, so that they truly shape the Books of Moses) offer the promise of abundance if we do what we are asked to do by God. This commandment of prosperity which sounded like such a good idea to answer the fear of insufficiency has, as we now know (and Amos did, too) been easily taken out of context to increase inequities and insufficiency in the name of doing the Lord’s work and will. You’ve heard and maybe even said these words: why those poor people must not be working hard enough, or they would be blessed with prosperity. And when you’ve actually had more than enough, but learned to see that more than enoughness as not enough, it is indeed a very difficult pickle to shift to a humbler mode of existence and view that as prosperity in action. And yet, that’s exactly what Amos is telling us God wishes from us. It is what the Asaph the Psalmist is telling God wishes from us. And, even though he later gives into the troubles the young Psalmist David exhorts us to avoid, we have the same song in Psalm 25:1-10. How do we cultivate that trust when we’re used to one standard of living and in the face of the world’s inequities and changes God is asking us to adopt a far more modest one? We’re going to miss the mark at times, David reminds us, and yet that’s not the reason to give up. We’re going to miss the mark at times, God reminds Amos, so go ahead and marry a woman society reviles and yet society exploits (a prostitute) and treat her as a woman of honor. We’re going to miss the mark with the chalk-line, Amos observes, and build places in God’s Holy Name that are not holy, because they do are not humble, accessible to all, welcoming to all, feeding all. The separation of a place from the regular person, the inequities that cause hunger and exploitation and desolation are desecrations, holy offenses.
And then the lection throws us Paul and his letter to the Colossians 1:1-14. I laughed to see this lovely piece of humility and encouragement following the much distorted and misappropriated selection from Deuteronomy, because this section of Paul’s letter has also been so often an excuse for those who comport themselves as gods to keep stumbling and fail the weak and needy with mercy and justice. How? Like the prosperity promise for keeping God’s holy rule, here we have Paul saying “…because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” Unfortunately, that there will be future heavenly rewards isn’t what Paul meant to relate. He might have believed that, but for Paul, the hopes laid in heaven refer to God, Christ, and the saints’ love for the ways we pray, suffer, endure, and live God’s holy rule now. Bearing fruit in every good work recalls us to Amos’ sycomore figs that grow abundantly, wildly, strongly, and offer simple, needful food. Paul is encouraging his people: I know things are bad right now, often truly awful because of how you are seeking to live, but keep keepin’ on, God is with you. That’s the same message Amos delivered, and, like Paul’s own experiences, it was received about as well by those who in power. Yes, there were people of means who joined Amos and who joined Paul, and they were reminders, as Jesus reminds us in Luke’s parable, that all are our neighbors and we should not give up on someone because of prejudice. Mercy is a tough rod to measure one’s road by.
And who are our neighbors? The much-beloved parable of the Good Samaritan forms the final segment of our lection this week. The teaching story Jesus offers deals with stock characters; they are not justifications to love or loathe any particular group of people. Jesus’ listeners are supposedly originally people who would be suspicious of and even view as ancient enemies the Samaritans, so in your consideration of the story, insert there a characterization of a group of people your own community might be struggling with or view with disdain, such as fundamentalists or corporate tycoons or socialites. This parable gives us a way of remembering not the give up on any particular person or group of people, to remember that there are many who can yet do the right thing. Then as now, folks had social systems of differentiating where people belonged and who was making it and who was not. Jesus just gives us an example of one person who doesn’t count and two who are distracted from the call to mercy by their social standing. Psalms 82 & 25, Amos, the Deuteronomist, and Paul all come back in one accord to the central value that God asks us to live: mercy. Cultivate compassion for those who are in trouble, disadvantaged, and dispossessed, for the whole world comprises our neighbors.
When have you found it more comfortable to read the texts as distant in history and not applying to you or the present day?
Since mercy and justice are yoked in most of these texts, and even used as synonyms, how do understand their relationship? If you have held mercy and justice as separate and different from each other, why? What experiences inform your viewpoint? What would you have to change to understand mercy and justice as synonyms?
When have you found yourself stumbling in your pursuit of mercy and justice?
What changes are you embracing in your life, in order to create greater equity and restore our world?
Prayer: Abundant Giver and Redeemer, you who seeded the earth with a multitude of foods to mercifully feed to the humble multitudes, we give thanks for such generosity, such fruitfulness, such sweet simple possibility. Lovers of gilding the lily, we find ourselves often astray, with some going hungry, some parched in thirst, some terrified in war, some thrown away by society. We weep for and with our neighbors whom we have wronged; we weep for and with the earth which we have plundered. Gracious God, you whose justice is in mercy, welcome us back to the ways of cultivating equity and compassion, of living more simply, of blessing the world many times the ways we ourselves are blessed. You have not left us; for this, we give thanks. You are ever by us; for this, we give thanks! You guide us on our renewing way; for this, we give thanks! For you teach us the greater measure, heal our impoverished spirits, and grant us our labors to aid in restoring this world. Selah!