Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. —Amos 5: 24
The Old Testament book of Amos, written eight centuries before the birth of Christ, includes some of the saddest lines in the Bible. When the people of Israel bring to the Lord their burnt offerings, God says, “I will not accept them”; when they bring their offerings of fatted animals, the Lord says, “I will not look upon them”; and when they try to sing hymns of praise, God says, “I will not listen to them.” The Lord totally rejects the people’s attempts at worship: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”
The prophet Amos is writing during an unusual time of peace and prosperity for the people of Israel. They feel safe from foreign danger and many are enjoying the good life. Their homes are well furnished and their cupboards well stocked. It is a time of self-satisfaction and general contentment.
Yet God is angry because this is also a time of injustice and oppression. The rich are becoming richer, the poor are becoming poorer, and no one seems to care. The elite hoard their wealth with indulgent living, while the needy are homeless and cold. So God rejects the people’s attempts at worship. They might be following all the right rituals, bringing the proper offerings to the altar, and singing the appropriate hymns, but this is not what the Lord wants. It is an empty religion. It is not real. It is not affecting the way people live their lives. Amos reminds us what the Lord expects from people of faith: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Faith in God, if it be real, is expressed in a transformed life.
In one of his many discourses, Jesus tells a parable about a wedding banquet where the bride and her ten bridesmaids are waiting late at night for the arrival of the groom. Five of the bridesmaids are wise; they have prepared for the groom’s arrival by having their lamps full of oil. Five are foolish. They are unprepared; their lamps are nearly empty. When the groom arrives at midnight, the wise bridesmaids accompany the happy couple into the banqueting hall. The foolish ones rush off to try to buy some oil. When they make it back from their midnight run, it is too late; the banquet has already begun. They stand at the door, pleading, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But the groom rejects their pleas, saying he does not know them.
This parable includes some of the saddest lines in the New Testament: “our lamps are going out,” “the door was shut,” and “I do not know you.”
This parable of rejection appears in Matthew’s gospel after a passionate critique by Jesus of the religious leaders of the day, the elite scribes and Pharisees. He condemns them for their hypocrisy and empty piety. They are scrupulous in their devotion to the letter of the law, practicing and demanding a strict adherence to religious ritual and form, yet their lives are unchanged. Like the people of Israel in the days of Amos, they are self-indulgent and unjust. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” thunders our Lord with anger, “for you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the other. You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
Empty religion, faith without a life transformed, is simply not acceptable to God. Practitioners of such religion may stand at the gates of the kingdom and cry, “Lord, Lord, open to us,” but the Lord will reply, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Indeed, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”
In what does God delight? Throughout the Old Testament and the New, the answer is clear. The Lord delights in our total devotion, in our love for God and our love for one another. Jesus says the first and greatest commandment is to love God and the second commandment is to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. These two commandments are inseparable, inextricable. You cannot claim to follow the first without following the second. That is what had gone haywire with the people of Israel during the days of Amos and with the scribes and Pharisees during the time of Jesus. They claimed to love God and yet they showed no love for their neighbour. They were religious, but they were not just.
So where is the hope in all this? Where is the gospel? The good news is that God has shown us clearly the path of love. Through faith in Jesus Christ we receive the grace of God, the unmerited love of God, which reconciles us to our loving Creator and empowers us to love our neighbours as ourselves. This is the path to communion with God, not rejection; to right relations with others, not injustice; to a life of joy, not despair.
Rawls, James J.. On the Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith. WestBow Press. Kindle Edition.