A time of famine

Just after Hitler had been appointed Chancellor in 1933, Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright and poet, fearing persecution, fled Nazi Germany and found refuge in  Denmark. One of the poems he wrote during his time there was titled, TO THOSE BORN LATER:[1]

Truly, I live in dark times!

The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead

Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs

Has simply not yet [heard]

The terrible news.

 

What kind of times are they, when

A [conversation] about trees is almost a crime

Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

 

It is true I still earn my keep

But, believe me, that is only an accident. Nothing

I do gives me the right to eat my fill.

By chance I’ve been spared. (If my luck breaks, I am lost.)

 

They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!

But how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat

From the starving, and

My glass of water belongs to one dying of thirst?

And yet I eat and drink.

What kind of times are they, when a conversation about trees is almost a crime, because it implies silence about so many horrors?

That was the line that came to mind when I sat with, or rather under, the heavy words we heard this morning from the book of the prophet Amos. The passage begins with a vision, the fourth in a series of five:

This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”

That’s not very specific, so you can make that basket as big as you want it to be, and you can fill it with all your favorites — blackberries, cherries, strawberries, peaches, cantaloupes, plums, apricots… you can even slip in a few mangoes, nobody said all of it had to be local.

“Amos, what do you see?”

“A basket of summer fruit,” he got to respond, but this would not be a conversation about juicy, dripping, fragrant deliciousness. Taking a sharp turn, the Lord said to Amos, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.”

If you say summer fruit in Hebrew really fast, it sounds almost like end, and apparently the Lord didn’t have fruit in mind at all. What kind of times are they, when a conversation about summer fruit is almost a crime, because it implies silence about so many horrors?

There would be no conversation about summer fruit, because the Lord unleashed a verbal downpour of indictments, judgments, and punishments, falling on Amos like crushed stone, piling up around him:

The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day… The dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place… Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land… You that can’t wait for the holiday to be over so you can go back to cheating the poor out of what little they have with your false balances, buying them with your shady loans, taking their land, their house, even the sandals of their feet… Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it…? I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and every head will be shaved in surrender to unspeakable grief; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.

This was the fourth vision in a series of five. In the first vision, the Lord showed Amos locusts eating the grass of the land, and the prophet cried out, “O Lord God, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”

And the Lord relented.

In the second vision, the Lord showed Amos a shower of fire, devouring the ocean and the land, and again the prophet cried out, “O Lord God, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”

And again the Lord relented.

In the third vision, Amos saw the Lord standing beside a wall, holding a plumb line and announcing judgment against the house of Jeroboam, king of Israel—and this time, Amos did not plead, but proclaimed God’s judgment against the king.

In those days, the kingdom of Israel had been divided in two for nearly two-hundred years: Judah in the south, including Jerusalem, and Israel in the north, with Samaria as its capital and Bethel functioning as its national sanctuary. And Amos went straight to Bethel.

It was a time of relative peace and prosperity in both Israel and Judah, but the prosperity did not reach the farmers and artisans. All the new wealth accumulated at the top, while a growing number of farmers lost their land and had to sell themselves or their children into indentured service to pay off their loans.

We live in a very different world, but we know firsthand what happens in an economy where investment incomes have continued to grow handsomely while today’s real average wage, that is, the wage after accounting for inflation, has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers. Some degree of economic inequality is probably inevitable, but an economy, and definitely a democratic society, cannot be sustained when wealth accumulates at the top, instead of being spread across the whole spectrum of workers, investors, and consumers.

Amos decried economic injustices large and small, and he took his message to Bethel, where he was confronted by Amaziah, the priest. Amaziah had already sent a report to King Jeroboam, telling him there was a conspiracy against him and that the land was not able to bear all the prophet’s words. And the priest told Amos to go back to Judah where he came from and never again to prophesy at Bethel. Bethel, he said, was the king’s sanctuary when Amos apparently assumed that it was the Lord’s.

At Bethel they were used to hearing preachers who were able to speak pleasing words to powerful people, soothing their consciences and telling them what they wanted to hear, words of comfort and affirmation. Amos was just too much, too much of a disruption of their pleasant liturgies with his talk about the poor and needy and his words of judgment against their sacred order.

What kind of times are they, when a conversation about trees or fruit baskets is almost a crime, because it implies silence about so many horrors? Dark times. Unsettling times. Trying times.

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.

The good folks at Bethel thought all they had to do was send Amos back to Judah to maintain the status quo. They thought all they had to do was silence the disruptive voice for things to return to their proper balance. They didn’t think that within less than a generation, the kingdom of Israel would fall and collapse.

I was drawn to this passage from Amos because of its announcement of a time of famine, not a famine of bread, but of hearing the words of the Lord. The dark poetry of famine resonated, naming a time of desperate desire for voices that speak truthfully and faithfully, voices like Amos’s, Hosea’s, Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s that remind us that God’s grace and God’s love of justice cannot be separated, that love of God and love of neighbor go hand in hand.

Truthfulness and faithfulness have become almost quaint terms these days, along with dignity and respect and reverence. I noticed that Amos announced a time of famine of hearing the words of the Lord, which doesn’t necessarily imply that the Lord would no longer be speaking, but may well describe a moment when we have lost the capacity to hear what the Lord is saying because we don’t want to hear anything too disruptive, anything too inconvenient; or because we are too busy shouting our truths and our lies at each other and past each other; or because we have no interest at all in voices of outsiders, however we may define outside; or because we just want to be left alone with our little truth that is just the right size, thank you very much.

There are prophets among us, gifted with the vision to see what the rest of us cannot see;  you may be sitting next to one. They don’t wear badges, they don’t have certificates from prophet school. Amos didn’t either, he was a sheepherder, a guy with a southern accent who went north to tell whoever would listen that repentance opens worlds of new possibilities. Very few, if any, did listen.

But we still have his words. They were written down because some people realized that all his talk about the end had been painfully true. So by passing down his words to us, those early witnesses suggest that his calls to repentance are worthy to be heard and heeded.

The word I received from sitting and walking with Amos these past few days is, hear them out. Hold the quick labels and other forms of easy dismissal, and hear them out, those disruptive voices, those folks who speak with a heavy accent, those who stammer and stumble under the weight of their words, really anyone who is struggling, amid the twitter of constant spin and the unrelenting drone of sales pitches, to say something truthful and faithful. Hear them out.

 


[1] Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956 (New York: Methuen, 1987), 318-320.

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