When I go grocery shopping, I tend to over-buy fruit because it all looks so good. For instance, Georgia peaches are in season right now. Sink your teeth into that sweet, luscious fruit and it's instant bliss.
Nearly 3,000 years ago, God gave the Hebrew prophet Amos a vision that must have looked a lot like the fruit bowl on my kitchen table. "Amos, what do you see?" God asked. And Amos answered, "A basket of summer fruit." Sounds nice.
But God went on to declare that God's people Israel -- who were actually doing pretty well at the time in terms of power and wealth in the region -- were about to come to ruin (Amos 8:1-3).
So what's the connection? Well, summer fruit spoils quickly. A few days after I've bought a bunch of fruit, I'm left with a few wrinkled peaches and soft brown bananas.
The wording in Amos indicates that God is talking about fruit that is just at its peak -- like the nation Israel was -- but as a result is on its way to rottenness.
Why is God judging the people this way, saying they're rotting and about to be thrown out? God lists the grievances:
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. (Amos 8:4-7)
What had happened? It's pretty clear: The culture's priorities were backwards. The societal structure was rotting. And God was not happy.
Those who had money and power were ignoring, if not trampling on, the poor. They actually were making things worse for the needy.
Not only did the people ignore the poor, they used and abused them. Their sole goal was to make money -- and they were willing to cheat any way they could to make as much money as possible. So they sold out the defenseless poor. They even sold the harvest leftovers -- the sweepings of the wheat -- which should have been made available to those who were hungry for free.
And God swore, "Surely I will never forget any of their deeds."
Here's another uncomfortable scene from the Hebrew Bible: Psalm 82 takes us to a council of the gods (a common meme of ancient Middle Eastern religious writings). Think of the gods as those in authority: judges, rulers, or leaders, whether governmental or religious. They have come together to face God's judgment. They are not doing their job, and God blasts them for it:
How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82:2-4)
Can God be any plainer?
This is the heart of God's will for all of us, from our leaders on down: We are to be at work to bring justice to those who are powerless, and to meet the needs of the poor.
Today in America people are busy arguing about whether freedom of religion in America really means anything, and whether moderate Muslims can create a community center in Manhattan near Ground Zero. People are busy debating whether President Obama really is a Muslim, let alone a U.S. citizen. People are busy getting angry at our do-nothing leaders on both sides of the aisle as we prepare for the fall elections.
We are so busy looking out for ourselves and our own interests that we too are failing to get busy about God's priorities for the poor.
How far have we fallen from God's calling? How rotten are we as a people becoming?