Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37.
The judgment of God can mean the death of a nation, though God’s will is for the compassion of the Good Samaritan.
After four weeks on Elijah and Elisha, the Lectionary selections from the prophets move to Amos and Hosea. These prophets spoke the word of God against Israel about a hundred years after the times of Elijah and Elisha. The words they brought were the judgment of God upon a mercenary and faithless nation.
This Sunday’s Amos reading begins with an announcement of doom on the kingdom of Israel, and specifically on the dynasty of Jehu, now headed by Jehu’s great-grandson, Jeroboam II (reigned over the northern kingdom approximately 786-746 BCE). This announcement of doom is delivered at a major sanctuary of the northern kingdom, Bethel, called “the king’s sanctuary” (verse 13), and was probably delivered at the time of a great festival-assembly at that ancient holy place.
Amos intended to get the attention of masses of people from all over the kingdom. When he began to succeed, the head priest of Bethel, Amaziah, pronounced that “the land is not able to bear all [Amos’s] words” (verse 10, NRSV). After reporting Amos’ treasonable oracles to the king, the royal priest commanded the prophet to return to his provincial town in Judah and never approach the royal sanctuary again (verses 12-13).
So, Amos had delivered God’s condemnation of Israel. If there is a prophet anywhere who is truly a doom prophet, with only words of condemnation and disaster, it is Amos. There is one add-on passage at the end of the book that portrays a glorious future for David and the land (Amos 9:11-15), but otherwise the book is unrelenting doom for Israel. Amos in his own time, announced, in several powerful speeches, the death of Israel. (We will look more closely at this death announcement next week.)
Two points of enormous importance may be simply stated, without much development.
First, Amos itemizes at length the reasons for God’s condemning Israel to death. The reasons are the repeated and ingrained violations of social justice. Israel will die because they “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2:6). It is a time of prosperity and the well-to-do are engrossed in luxuries, busy denying justice to the less powerful, and ignoring the plight of the truly poor. The existence of a nation is weighed in the divine scales of justice and found wanting. The nation will go.
Second, Amos is the earliest voice in a world-wide development of human spirituality. By insisting that Yahweh, the God of Israel, can cast away this chosen people, the God who spoke through Amos rose above a religious life based on racial, ethnic, and geographical roots.
Amos delivers the first affirmation of a God who transcends the tribal and national orders of the human world.
Amos delivers the first word of what some historians and philosophers call “the Axial Age,” the historical period (roughly 800 to 200 BCE) in which there emerged the great universalist religions and wisdom traditions that still define the main global communities of faith. (See more in the discussion of the Gospel below.)
This, of course, is not Amos’ way of expressing it. He was a man who, in the wilderness of Tekoa, saw visions, heard words, and found himself sent from behind the flock to deliver God’s overwhelming word of justice to Israel (verses 14-15).
But his intensity for justice was driving toward a vaster vision for humankind.
The Psalm reading also has to do with divine judgment.
Psalm 82 is set in the heavenly council of the gods, the standard religious cosmos of Mesopotamian and Canaanite religious institutions and traditions. God the Lord is in fact delivering judgment upon the divine council itself! (Later Jewish and Christian traditions understood these to be angels, or even earthly princes and judges.)
God indicts the lesser divinities, the members of the Cabinet, if you will.
How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
How should they be using their heavenly powers instead?
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. (Verses 2-4, NRSV.)
The word of judgment that Amos delivered to the prosperous in Bethel, God delivers in person to the other mighty powers of the heavenly world, who are understood to influence and direct the affairs of their favorites on earth.
And what is the conclusion of this judgment?
You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince. (Verses 6-7.)
Just as the elect people Israel may be condemned to death on earth, so God the Lord can do without these unreliable heavenly beings. This psalm virtually announces the death of all heavenly powers except God the Lord. (These powers would, of course, return later as various kinds of angels and those “elemental spirits” to be heard of in this month’s Epistle reading.)
The absolute scale on which heavenly beings also would be weighed was justice and compassion, for the poor and powerless. These, the poor and powerless, are truly the people of God.
As the prophetic readings have shifted to different books, so the Epistle readings for the next four weeks are from a different letter of Paul – or, perhaps, a letter written under Paul’s name.
Colossians in one of the letters that many historical scholars think was not written by the real Paul, the Paul of Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans.
My personal experience is this: several sections of this letter are unusual (if not strange) compared to the main letters, but taken by itself I could accept it as a letter by Paul. The problem is the great similarity of Colossians to Ephesians. I long ago concluded easily that Paul did not write the Pastoral letters (I & II Timothy and Titus), though some passages in them could be snippets from actual letters of Paul. The biggie for me was Ephesians. The thick, lugubrious language of Ephesians 1-3 is so different from the main letters that I cannot conceive them as coming from the person who wrote Romans, even at a much later time. And it is exactly that kind of Ephesian language that appears in several sections of Colossians.
As Ephesians goes, so goes Colossians. One of Paul’s followers with special interest in the three churches of the Lycus valley (a hundred miles east of Ephesus) wrote it, probably between 70 and 90 CE. The author of this letter was the spirit of “Paul” as carried forward by his faithful companions and followers. For a fuller discussion, see the Special Note below on “Letters from the Paul Movement.”
In our reading we have a thanksgiving (verses 3-8) and a report of prayer on behalf of the Colossian community (verses 9-14). The writer thinks easily in terms of the Pauline faith-love-hope trilogy. Thanks are given for “your faith in Christ Jesus,” for “the love that you have for all the saints,” and for “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (verses 4-5). The hearers are given a sense of being a part of a vast world movement. “Just as [the gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it” (verse 6).
The Colossians were won to the faith by Epaphras, one of their own people, “our beloved fellow servant…a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf” (verse 7). Epaphras also did jail-time with Paul (“my fellow prisoner,” 4:10), and is only one of a handful of associates of Paul mentioned in the conclusion of this letter.
The Gospel reading continues Jesus’ “journey” toward fulfilling the Reign of God.
Luke places here an incident that other Gospels put in Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem: It is the lawyer who asks the question about the greatest commandment. In Luke’s adaptation, Jesus and the lawyer reach a common mind about the two great commandments, but then Luke adds the lawyer’s question, Who is the neighbor? This addition gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The parable is too well known to go over here. Let us focus on two phrases. The Samaritan comes down the road and sees the victim of the mugging, and “he was moved with pity” (NRSV) or “he was moved with compassion” (New Jerusalem Bible). And after the parable is complete, the lawyer says that the neighbor was “the one who showed him mercy” (NRSV). The God whose reign Jesus is preparing for in his journey to Jerusalem is a God of compassion and mercy.
Karen Armstrong has characterized the Axial Age in human history as turning decisively on a heightened sense of compassion in the development of the great religious and wisdom traditions. Here is one of her summary statements of that theme.
In the cities and empires of the Axial Age, citizens were acquiring a wider perspective and broader horizons, which made the old local cults seem limited and parochial. Instead of seeing the divine as embodied in a number of different deities, people increasingly began to worship a single, universal transcendence and source of sacredness…. [As social injustice became more obvious to sensitive leaders], prophets and reformers arose who insisted that the virtue of compassion was crucial to the spiritual life...
In this way, during the Axial Age, the great confessional faiths that have continued to guide human beings sprang up in the civilized world: Buddhism and Hinduism in India, Confucianism and Taoism in the Far East; monotheism in the Middle East; and rationalism in Europe. Despite their major differences, these Axial Age religions had much in common: they all built on the old traditions to evolve the idea of a single, universal transcendence; they cultivated an internalized spirituality, and stressed the importance of practical compassion.
(This quote is from The Battle for God, 2000, p. xii [p. xiv in paperback ed.]. Ms. Armstrong has elaborated this perspective at greater length in The Great Transformation, 2006.)
The Good Samaritan – the neighbor – was a person who practiced practical compassion.
Special Note: Letters from the Paul Movement
Jesus began a movement in Galilee (with some covert allies in Judea) that was at most only roughly shaped by the time of his death. Then the Jesus Movement, transformed by experiences of the risen Jesus, went on in different directions, some in Semitic speaking environments, some in Greek speaking environments.
Paul gave shape to one of the directions in which the Jesus Movement developed. In his early years as an apostle he worked around Syria and southeastern Asia Minor (Galatians 1:21), but after breaking with Peter, Barnabas, and the Antioch church (Galatians 2:11-14) Paul gathered new co-workers and founded assemblies, mostly of non-Jewish believers, in western Asia, Macedonia, and Greece. (Described by Luke in Acts 16-20). These churches, founded between 49 and 58 CE, became the foundation of a Paul Movement.
In Paul’s lifetime it seems clear that he expected Jesus’ imminent return in power at any time (seen early in I Thessalonians 4:17). As time passed, more enduring arrangements for the leadership of the assemblies became imperative. When Paul was gone, there were still those who had labored with him and knew his views and his spirit intimately. These associates continued with the churches for the next several decades – as they passed through the destruction of the Judean churches, the increased separation from Judaism, the growing influence of the Roman church, and the sporadic persecution of the churches by imperial Rome.
Thus, as the Gospels contain collections of traditions from the Jesus movements made well after the time of Jesus, so the whole collection of Paul’s letters contains several items written in Paul’s name but actually coming from Timothy, Titus, Phoebe, Tychicus, Epaphras, or others – with Mark and Luke somewhere in the mix (Colossians 4:10 and 14).
Naming Names in the Movement. The end of the letter to the Colossians gives us an unusual glimpse into the people of this “Paul Movement.” The long section sends greetings to some and names others who have been around Paul (4:7-17). The list starts with evangelists and leaders: Tychicus, who is delivering this letter; Onesimus, the slave spoken of in the letter to Philemon; Aristarchus, a fellow prisoner of Paul; Mark, identified as “the cousin of Barnabas”; and Jesus Justus – all of these were Jewish-Christians, Jews by birth serving the risen Messiah.
Greetings are also sent from some non-Jewish colleagues: Epaphras, who originally brought the gospel to the cities of the Lycus valley (see below); Luke, “the beloved physician”; and Demas, who later gets a bad press in II Timothy 4:10.
The “Paul” of this letter also sends greetings to the churches of the other Lycus cities, Laodicea and Hieropolis, besides Colossae. He instructs these churches to read each other’s letters from him (4:13, 16). A cryptic message is sent to “Archippus”: “See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord” (4:17) – and we have no idea what that “task” was.
The Paul Movement was certainly a historical fact, starting with Paul himself but extending several decades after his death. Eventually it produced the collection of Paul’s letters – all of them. The first collection did not happen much before 100 CE, with the letters to Timothy and Titus being added later, perhaps as late as 140 CE.
It is worth adding that Luke, the writer of Luke-Acts, was at least on the periphery of this Movement. If the “we” sections in Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; and 27:12-28:16) are in fact a modest way of his saying he was there along with Paul, that would have been early in his life (around 55-60 CE). He wrote Acts about thirty years later (80 to 95 CE). Thus, when Luke-Acts was written, the second generation of Paul’s followers were growing old, and needed to pass on the heritage to yet another generation. Luke-Acts, and perhaps the letters to Timothy and Titus, concluded the second stage of the long Paul Movement.
Clearly Luke’s impressive work about the founding of Paul’s churches was intended, among other things, to reinforce the sense of identify and unity of those churches in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece. Acts does not show any trace of knowing the letters of Paul, so the Movement had yet to consolidate the Apostle’s heritage – by compiling a written corpus of his letters.