I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. 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!
We don’t like to think of God as hating anything. Our God is a God of love. He’s gentle and kind and caring. God doesn’t hate. In particular, the idea that God might hate our worship is something we instinctively resist. But that is what today’s passage would seem to indicate. 'I hate, I despise your religious festivals.' Strong words indeed.
But like every passage of scripture, this one comes with context. The context was one of economic injustice and the problem was that the nation were not only doing nothing about it, their leaders were perpetuating it. Amos was from the southern kingdom of Judah but preached in the northern kingdom of Israel. It was a time of relative peace and prosperity, but as we know prosperity brings inequality. Indeed, there is some archaeological evidence of an increase in house size variation during this time, ie the gap between rich and poor was growing.
Into this setting, Amos brings a message of judgement. A number of different themes occupy him. The first is that they prioritised greed: 'Hear this, you who trample the needy, and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”' (Amos 8:4) What is interesting in this verse is the way in which two different ideas are put side by side. On the one hand, they are criticised for seeking to do business when they should not have been; on the other, they are described as those who oppress the poor. It is almost as if those two ideas are necessarily linked in Amos’ mind: a rapacious greed that drives us to workaholism is coupled with a disdain for those in poverty. Of course, we sometimes see that today as well.
The second issue for Amos is that they exploited the economic weaknesses of the poor: 'skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat.' (Amos 8:6-8) Again, there are two distinct ideas here. Firstly, there is reference to dishonest trade practices. The very fact this can occur is of course due to the imbalance of power between those with assets and those without. In the second place, there seems to be a reference to debt servitude. ‘the needy for a pair of sandals’ is probably referring to someone who couldn’t pay back a debt of that size, and so went into slavery. As Oxfam have pointed out, this issue is relevant to the clothes we wear as often those who make them are in a form of debt servitude.
The point of all this is that when Amos says that God hates their festivals, it is because they are running them in the content of economic exploitation and injustice. The call for justice and righteousness is then a call for economic justice in the land: that greed won’t dominate our activities; that those who are poor will be treated fairly; that they will be empowered and freed. The lessons of Amos seem to me to be lessons for us today.
The Bible And Tax - Revd David Haslam's in-depth exploration of the Biblical precedents for the Tax Justice Campaign with reference to both the Old and New Testaments and to theologian Ched Myers' ideas of 'Sabbath Economics'. Physical copies can be purchased at a cost of £1 per copy, £5 for 6 or £10 for 12. Email us at mail (at) catj.org.uk for more information..