Amos was a prophet in the 8th century BC. We don’t know much about him so far as biography is concerned. The Old Testament tells us that he was a herdsman, and that he tended sycamore trees:
I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees….(Amos 7:14, NRSV)
Honestly, I have no idea how one earned a living from tending sycamore trees. I don’t even understand why they needed that much tending.
As to Amos’ other work, which despite his own denial turned out to be prophecy, he was not a purveyor of happy thoughts. Rather, he warned of the death, the end, of Israel. He turned out to be right. Later in the 8th century BC, in about 722, the kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians.
There is no Exodus here, no deliverance out of trouble, no promise of resurrection.
In recent times, Amos has become a voice of social conscience:
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24, NRSV)
We become calloused and hardened against the indictments of the prophets. In Amos 7:21 we hear the voice of God speaking to Israel through the prophet—I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your assemblies—and I wonder whether God has seen our festivals and our assemblies.
The words of Amos 8:6 have remained in my mind for years, accusing the wicked—…buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals… Somehow the imagery snagged my imagination and my conscience. I am writing these words on a machine that I love; the price of it would feed a poor child for many days. Do you suppose that my small donations to Compassion International balance the scale? I doubt it.
Where is the line between social conscience and morbid guilt? How far does God expect us to reach out to the needs of others?
I do not know the answer. I do know that in the words of Amos we hear God asking.