The prophet Amos was given an unenviable mission. A herdsman from a backwater in Judah, he was sent by God to the Northern Kingdom of Israel to proclaim a message of judgment. The Northern Kingdom was not what we might consider to be prime mission territory. Its powerful ruler Jeroboam II had secured a period of peace and plenty. Samaria, the capital, was a byword for luxury and sophistication. Religiously the kingdom also seemed to be thriving. The sacrificial worship of the Israelites was conducted with pomp and circumstance, and the prosperity was interpreted as divine favour.
However, behind this veneer of comfort and religiosity, the reality was not so pleasing in the eyes of God. Thriving commerce had brought the Israelites into contact with pagans, and the true religion was being contaminated by worship of heathen idols. And while the economy boomed, corruption and injustice were rife.
Needless to say, the arrival of a cowherd from the wilds of the south was not well received. Amos was eventually driven out of the kingdom by the chief priest at the great sanctuary in Bethel. Within forty years the mighty Northern Kingdom had been destroyed and its population was deported by the Assyrians in 720 B.C.
In purely human terms the mission of Amos looks like a flop. But the important thing is that Amos was obedient to God’s command, and so he fulfilled his mission. We can be confident that Amos enjoys his reward in Heaven, even if we cannot be so sanguine about the destination of those who rejected his prophecy. Amos was a faithful servant of the word of God, even if that word fell on deaf ears.
When we talk about the word of God in the Old Testament, we are talking about the words of Holy Scripture, and the words that were pronounced on the lips of the prophets under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament the Word of God Himself comes to us as a Person. This is the Eternal Logos, God the Son – the Word of God with a capital ‘W’. And again, like the prophets in the Old Testament, the Word of God Who is God receives a very mixed reception. Two thousand years after the Resurrection, we find a large-scale rejection of the word of God. The word transmitted in Holy Scripture is disdained by those who make the laws which govern our society. And the Word of God Who is God is largely ignored by those whom He came to save.
Nevertheless, it remains our task as Christians to proclaim the word of God. In this challenging climate bishops and priests have to do what they can to make the word of God as accessible and attractive as possible. And it is up to all of us to give credibility to our belief, by living in charity and especially in the care we show towards those in need. At the same time, the Gospel can only be effective when proclaimed in its integrity, and this includes the hard bits as well as the passages from Scripture which no-one minds hearing. Some will embrace the Gospel in its completeness while others – perhaps even the vast majority – will reject it. Many reject it today because they are frightened of sounding a discordant note when everyone else is singing obediently from the same libretto.
Of course, everyone is glad to hear about mercy and love. And the New Testament is the greatest love story ever told. But Our Lord also sends His Apostles to preach a Gospel of repentance [Mk 6.12]. In order to taste the sweetness of God’s mercy and to participate in the Divine Love which is the essence of the Life of the Blessed Trinity we first need to confess our sins and receive forgiveness. This message of repentance will lodge in the throat of a society which, if it deigns to acknowledge the reality of God at all, only allows Him to exist in so far as He affirms us.
It can be tempting to reinterpret the word of God beyond recognition in the futile hope of adapting the message to modern prejudices, but then the Gospel is sapped of vitality. Such theologizing and prevaricating also constitute a calamitous contravention of Our Lord’s instruction to His Apostles when He sends them out to preach repentance. “If any place will not receive you and if they refuse to hear you,” He tells them, “shake the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them.”
One of the glories of the Oratory Church is the series of statues of the Twelve Apostles, by the baroque sculptor Giuseppe Mazzuoli, originally created for the nave of Siena Cathedral. Looking at those statues we should consider that all but one of the Twelve were put to death for preaching the Gospel of repentance. Some of them carry the instruments of their martyrdom. St Andrew stands in front of his cross. St Bartholomew carries the blade with which he was flayed. And yet they were not a failure. Yes, they enraged the religious and civil leaders of the day, and they paid the ultimate price. But their blood fertilized a mustard seed which flourished into a mighty tree, in the branches of which the birds of the air have come to make their nests for two millennia. We should ask the Twelve Apostles, and the Prophet Amos, to intercede for us. Like them, may we have the courage to sing those discordant notes that need to be heard while the rest of the world sings so obediently from the same libretto.
Fr Julian Large