Biblical Virtues for Our Time:
the Prophet Amos on Love for the Poor

by Paul Zilonka, C.P.

Criticism is hard to take, even when it comes from a friend who clearly has our best interests at heart. However, most of us are a bit less open to unflattering remarks when they come from a stranger. We are more likely to question the critic's credentials and more ready to discount or deny the objective truth that provoked the comments in the first place.

Days are coming...We might even be anxious to get rid of this person who troubles us with the disturbing fact that all is not so perfect as we would like to pretend. But as good Pope John XXIII so often said, we should respect the truth wherever it is found. Despite all our ingenious lies and our penchant for subterfuge, truth has a way of coming to light eventually.

Amos, the shepherd of Tekoa near Jerusalem, spoke the truth fearlessly, despite the fact that his mission led him to unfriendly territory in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It did not take long for Amaziah, the local priest in charge of the shrine at Bethel, to realize that this stranger from the other side of the border could only spell trouble for the local worshipers.

After all, there was peace and prosperity, thanks to the long reign of King Jeroboam. Property values were up. The upper classes could afford to decorate their summer houses with fine imported ivory. This year's wine would be plentiful and bring a good price. It would also keep the lower classes in a half-stupor to drown their complaints about exorbitant farm taxes and the rest of their gripes.

Fr Paul Zilonka, C.P.The last thing Bethel needed now was a loud-mouth upstart from Judah talking about systematic oppression of the poor. He had also hit too close to home when he implied -- no, he emphatically declared -- that God hates the shrine festivals and prefers justice to sacred music and sacrificial offerings.

There were always people who would justify their mediocrity in religious observance by downplaying its importance for God, but enough was enough! "Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah! There earn your bread by prophesying, but never again prophesy in Bethel; for it is the king's sanctuary and a royal temple." (Amos 7:12-13)

Evening came. The gates were barred. The night air was quiet except for the occasional cry of a rooster. But Amaziah couldn't sleep. The shepherd's remarks as he was being hustled out of the shrine by two assistants kept coming to mind: "Your wife shall be made a harlot in the city, and your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword. Your land shall be divided by measuring line, and you yourself shall die in an unclean land; Israel shall be exiled far from its land." (Amos 7:17)

Amaziah could not decide if these were just the angry threats of an unwelcome foreigner or a privileged glimpse of the future which still seemed so unlikely. "Well, time will tell. It certainly will not be settled tonight," he said as he drifted off into sleep.

Fr. Paul Zilonka, C.P., shown above preaching a mission, is a graduate of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and Gregorian University in Rome.

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