15th Sunday of Ordinary Time July 16, 2006
“OFF WITH YOU, VISIONARY, FLEE TO THE LAND OF JUDAH! THERE EARN YOUR BREAD PROPHESYING, BUT NEVER AGAIN PROPHESY IN BETHEL” Mk 6:12
Amos is another prophet who came to his prophetic call as a second career. He was a “shepherd and a dresser of sycamores” from the southern kingdom of Judah when God called him to his prophetic ministry and sent him to Judah’s neighboring sister nation of Israel during the prosperous reign of Kind Jeroboam II (786-746 BC)
This was late in the era of the divided two state Jewish history. Right after King Solomon the Jewish nation divided into two separate kingdoms, Israel to the north and Judah to the south (911 BC). This arrangement lasted until 721 BC when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian empire and its people taken into captivity. The southern kingdom of Judah lasted until 586 BC before the Babylonian Empire destroyed Jerusalem and took many of its inhabitants into captivity in Babylon.
The book of Amos is the first prophetic book in the bible that stands on its own. What we know of the prophets before Amos like Elijah and Elisha, we know from accounts of their prophetic work written in other historical books of the bible.
During the prosperous reign of King Jeroboam some predictable things were happening. King Jeroboam was following the lead of other neighboring nations who built their prosperity on the backs of their people, especially the poor and rural farmers. As the wealth of Israel grew, mostly for those in the cities and connected with the royal court, the disparity between the rich and the poor increased. The small family farmer was being kicked off the land and forced into poverty and servitude on the land they had once owned. Greed and cheating were rewarded and built into the economic system. Amos saw all this happening. My hunch is that he was most likely a victim of these harsh economic conditions.
Amos begins his book with a sweeping indictment of the neighboring counties of Damascus, Philistia, Tyre and Edom (Amos 1:2-3). Then he devotes two verses to his home country of Judah (Amos 1:4-5) and in the rest of his book he denounces Israel. Amos reminds me of many of the farmers I got to know back in the 1980’s in rural Iowa during the “Farm Crisis.” What impressed me most in my city naivety was the degree of sophistication and knowledge Iowa farmers had of the global economic system. These folks did not reflect my city based stereotypic dumb farmer, not in the least! After a few years of being a rural pastor it was not hard to see why Iowa farmers were so knowledgeable of the global economic system, their very survival depended upon it. I imagine the same was true of Amos and the small family farmers of his time. This may well have been the reason God called him to be his prophet.
By the time of Amos the royal and priestly classes of the two Jewish nations were very much aware of the power of God’s prophetic spokespersons and the dangers of independent prophetic voices. To protect their status and preserve the “status quo” the rich and the powerful licensed their own class of prophets, put them on the payroll in an attempt to control God’s messengers. Today’s court prophets are the Washington, DC, think tanks and universities that provided the government with economists and political scientists, military experts and international specialists. The talking heads that the national news programs use to explain the days news are another example of modern day court prophets, the paid experts who are the acceptable critical voices who do not threaten the power elite base or the “status quo.”
It is in this context that we should read this week’s selection from the Book of Amos. Amos was saying harsh things about the king and his priestly class in Bethel, the site of the northern kingdom’s Temple. In the verses right before this week’s text selection Amaziah, the head priest at the Bethel Temple sends word to King Jeroboam of Amos’ treasonous speech against the King and the nation of Israel. (Amos 7:10-11) In this week’s text Amaziah turns his attention directly to Amos. Knowing the King will soon be looking for Amos, Amaziah warns Amos to flee Bethel and the nation of Israel and return to his native land of Judah. Amaziah tells Amos to go earn his keep prophesying in his own land of Judah.
Amos’ responded telling Amaziah that he was no prophet at all, nor did he come from any of the prophetic communities that were attached to the royal households. In fact Amos says he was a “shepherd and a dresser of sycamores” before God called him from Judah to Israel to speak to the injustices taking place. Amos was no company prophet, no one was paying Amos for his prophetic efforts. He was a free agent of God, an independent voice.
It was after Amaziah’s warning that Amos delivered his harshest criticism of the King (Amos 7:16-17) followed by a vision of a fruit basket (Amos 8:1-3) and then a classic critique against greed and the economics of greed (Amos 8:4-14). These prophetic words about greed in chapter 8 could easily apply to our modern times, especially the dire circumstances that are destroying agricultural indigenous societies in places like Latin America. It’s worth taking a look at.
We do not know whether or not Amos got out of Bethel and returned to his native home in Judah. What we do know is that his prophetic words have survived to this day through his book and for the most part still are as relevant today as they were in his time, written as if for our own generation.
HE SUMMONED THE TWELVE AND BEGAN TO SEND THEM OUT TWO BY TWO AND GAVE THEM AUTHORITY OVER UNCLEAN SPIRITS Mk 6:7
With this week’s gospel we begin another sandwich section in the gospel of Mark with a second story sandwiched in between the first story. It comes immediately after Jesus is rejected in Nazareth. It takes place in Galilee. Jesus’ popularity is at an all time high in the region. He decides it is time to send out his twelve select disciples who will be his apostles after his resurrection and initiate them to do what he commissioned them to do in chapter three (Mk 3:14-19) to preach and drive out demons. Jesus sends them out two by two with the authority to expel unclean spirits. Six sets of two disciples multiplying the work that Jesus was doing by himself. That Jesus sends them in twos tells us that Jesus did not want them working alone but always with a partner, in the company of another equal, the principle of collegiality put into practice.
“TAKE NOTHING FOR THE JOURNEY” Mk 6:8
Here Jesus instructs his disciples to travel light. They are not to take anything except a walking stick, a pair of sandals and one set of clothes. They are not to take any food, no traveling bag and no money. Jesus is requiring that his disciples be totally dependent on God for what they will eat and where they will be sheltered. Being dependent on God, practically speaking, means being dependent on the generosity and hospitality of the people they will meet along the way.
“WHEREVER YOU ENTER A HOUSE, STAY THERE UNTIL YOU LEAVE THERE” Mk 6:10
Jesus tells his disciples to be content with the first place offering them hospitality. They are not to be jumping from one household to the next, jockeying for a better place to stay. Jesus did not want his disciples to be social climbers, in no way are they to use their ministry to improve their standard of living.
“SHAKE THE DUST OFF YOUR FEET IN TESTIMONY AGAINST THEM” Mk 6:11
Jesus’ instruction to stay in the first house offered is a caution for when the disciples are well received. Jesus’ next instruction has to do with when the disciples are not well received. Jesus tells his disciples if they run into people who do not welcome them, nor listen to them, they are to leave the place and “shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.” What strikes me about this instruction is the limiting and minimal response Jesus gives his disciples in the face of rejection. This is an instruction that Christians have not often adhered to in spirit over the centuries, much to our discredit.
The instruction Jesus gives his disciples on their first missionary effort reflects a practical application of the Our Father petition , “give us this day our daily bread.” Jesus’ instructions address both sides of the petition’s intent by insuring that his disciple’s physical needs will be met day by day, no more, no less and that is all.
SO THEY WENT OFF AND PREACHED REPENTANCE Mk 6:12
With Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection yet to come the disciples must preach the message of repentance, the same message that John the Baptist preached before he was arrested, and the preparatory message that paves the way for Jesus’ gospel of redemption.
THEY DROVE OUT MANY DEMONS AND THEY ANOINTED WITH OIL MANY WHO WERE SICK AND CURED THEM Mk 6:12
Rounding out their commission to preach and expel demons, the disciples also cured the sick by anointing them with oil. This is one of the passages the church uses to support our anointing of the sick in the sacrament of the sick.
LESSONS FROM THIS WEEK’S GOSPEL FOR OUR CHURCH’S LEADERSHIP
Even though the twelve designated apostles in this week’s gospel never operated as a governing and leadership body in the church, our modern day catholic governing and leadership structure through the Pope, Cardinals and Bishops claim their institutional authority based on a direct line to these original twelve apostles. This being the case, our church’s leadership might better serve the greater church and be a more authentic witness to the world if they would embrace a way of life and ministry more in keeping with the spirit of the material directives Jesus gave the twelve disciples in this week’s gospel.
As the current scandal of the sexual crimes of priests against children and the institutional church’s sins of “cover ups” continues to play itself out, I believe the greater scandal of the modern church is the wealth and property it owns and controls. Most well off Catholics and their Bishops have no clue how scandalous the church’s wealth and property is to the poor and starving peoples of the world. At the heart of this scandal is the fact that the very heirs of the Apostles are the individuals who govern and control all this wealth and worldly power.
Imagine with me a different form of Church leadership. Imagine a Catholic Church where our leaders, the Pope, the Cardinals and the Bishops live like the Apostles in this week’s gospel, traveling preachers with no permanent homes, who rely solely on the generosity and hospitality of the people they serve, meeting their day to day needs, no more and no less. Imagine a Catholic Church where the Vatican and all its art and wealth were sold and given to the poor and all the chanceries and bishop’s residences sold off too. Imagine all the work of the church done on the parish level, except for Catholic Charities where our work for the poor and for justice would be expanded. Imagine a Catholic Church where the Pope, the Cardinals, the Bishops and priest no longer controlled the church’s wealth and property. All worldly assets of the church would be in the hands of the laity, leaving the ordained clergy with the sole task of meeting the spiritual needs of the people.
Something like this could happen. It is possible. It could be done without changing one church dogma or dropping any infallible teachings of the church. What I am imagining has to do with creating a new discipline for the church, much like the discipline of mandatory celibacy that we currently have for all those who wish to become priests. The Church says it keeps the mandatory celibacy rule in place because it enriches the priesthood, its witness and is good for the greater church. At this time in our church history if the church adopted the discipline of poverty as I am suggesting for its clergy it would be far more enriching for the priesthood, a much greater witness to the world and would be better for the church than the current discipline of mandatory celibacy in the priesthood. What do you think?