We have spent a good bit of time considering the applications of the prophet’s words to his original audience, to the Israelites in the northern kingdom of Israel. Lord willing, we will spend two weeks considering how those words may legitimately be applied to us as Americans. This is not a topical sermon so much as it as a topical application.
“For they know not to do right, saith the LORD, who store up violence and robbery in their palaces” (Amos 3:10).
Themes of the Book
Not to beat the point to death, but remember that false worship produces false living, and false living always results in cruelty and inhumanity, always. Israel was indicted for two great problems—false worship at Bethel and Dan, and hardheartedness to the downtrodden.
Applications, Direct and Indirect
In order to know how to apply this book to our circumstances in this nation, we have to make a distinction between the sin as we see it and the sin as God sees it. God always sees the heart of the matter, but we are not justified in taking the fact of that “heart” and applying it socially. Take the illustation of a husband who looks lustfully at a magazine cover for thirty seconds at the grocery store. Has he been unfaithful in the eyes of God? Yes (Matt. 5:28). Does his wife have grounds for divorce? No, of course not. Apply this distinction to idolatry. Refusing to bow down in religious worship before pictures or statues is direct application of the first two of the Ten Commandments. In many places in the world, these commandments must still be obeyed in this direct fashion. But the apostle Paul also tells us that greed is idolatry (Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:5), in the same way that lust is adultery. Heart idolatry is much harder for us to identify.
In a similar way, the prohibition of cruelty to the poor has a direct application, and it has indirect applications. As before, the indirect applications are harder to get at, although they are still there. For example, for entertainment the Roman emperor Tiberius would have prisoners brought in to be tortured in his presence while having his dinner. The message of Amos would apply to him directly. Frederick William of Prussia was traveling through Potsdam one day and saw one of his subjects darting off. The king ordered him to stop and commandaed him to say why he ran. Because he was afraid, the man replied. “Afraid?! Afraid?! You’re supposed to love me!”The king started beating him with a cane, while yelling, “Love me, scum!” Today when our rulers come out among the peasantry it is usually during a campaign, and so they come around to IHOP to have a waffle with us and ask us our opinions on geopolitics. They can still do vile things—but not openly as in other times. This means applications here will be indirect as well.
Applications for Americans
The evangelical Left is crowded with folks who want us to worship at Bethel—Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, and all that crowd. The evangelical Right is compromised by her allegiance to Dan— when President Bush summoned everyone to the post-911 worship service at the National Cathedral, many leaders of religious Right were there—including Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and for evangelicals generally, Billy Graham. And when we say this, we have to acknowledge that this sin at Dan was much closer to a direct violation of the law of God. Culture is always driven by cultus (worship), and you can’t get worship wrong and get anything else right long term. The religious Right wants good fruit from a rotten tree. The religious Left wants rotten fruit from a rotten tree.
Near and Clear
Jesus sets down several basic principles for us in His famous statement about the beam in your eye (Matt. 7:3). There are two issues here—the first is the location of the two eyes. The first is yours, and the second is your brother’s. Start at home. Secondly, Jesus says that we are to start with the big and obvious problem (the beam), and that later on we can get to the smaller problem (the mote). Put these two together, and we see that a Christian social conscience begins with the near and clear.
Having a social conscience over things that are far away and murky is a good way to avoid having a social conscience at all. When a motel chain asks you to refrain from having your towels washed so that together you can “save the rain forests,” we ought to see through this right away. This principle is foundational for all Christians who do not want their necessary naivete in certain areas to get in the way of being responsible Christians. As Linus put the reverse one time, “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.” And P.J. O’Rourke said that “everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to help mom with the dishes.” This same principle is seen (in another application) when John the apostle says, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 Jn. 4:20). We test distant love by proximate love. And this means that you cannot love your brother whom you have not seen if you are not loving your brother whom you have seen. Your fundamental duties are near and clear.
Some Test Cases
Take an average Christian believer, worshipping God faithfully and regularly, and one who reads his Bible and watches the evening news. How should his social conscience function? Where does it start? The less the application is diluted by distance and complexity, the more we may and must speak with assurance, boldness, and authority. The more it is diluted, the more careful we must be (Prov. 18:17). This is why, for Christians in the culture wars, the negative issues of abortion and homosexuality are touchstone issues. They are near and clear.
This is also why tithes and offerings and other aspects of personal generosity are also a touchstone issue. If we are in arrears with God’s taxes, then we have no right to complain about anyone else’s taxation levels. Put another way, those who are not tithing have no right to be political conservatives. Why? Their sin is near and clear.
Two Step Process
As we seek to make applications from Amos—as we will do more next week—we need to take two steps, asking two basic questions. Is this application direct or indirect? For most of us, it will be indirect. And because obedience will be indirect, we should want to begin our obedience at the near end, with clear duties.