Amos is arguably the earliest of the great prophets whose names are given to books of the Old Testament. He was an older contemporary of Hosea and Isaiah and a predecessor in the prophetic ministry of Micah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and many others whom the Lord raised up to rouse his people, Israel. In today’s reading he sternly reproves the wealthy of Israel on account of their gross injustice to the poor of the land and on account of their ignoring the Lord at a time of national distress: “Woe to the complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches…They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils…Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile!” (Amos 6:1, 4, 6-7).
In our American culture—which is known for its religiosity—we were reminded of the enduring power of Old Testament prophecies when one of the most famous passages of Amos’ prophecy was used to great effect in stirring the spirit of the civil rights movement. It was in the course of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, given in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, that Amos’ inspired words became known to many Americans. Dr. King said: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’” “We are not satisfied,” he answered, “and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (see Amos 5:24).
Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of this passage makes one respect the living power of God’s word, spoken through the prophet some twenty-seven centuries ago, and still vibrant today. It also makes us ask ourselves a question about the application to the present time of the words of Amos as well as those of all the prophets: what do they mean for us?
To respond to this question with the help of today’s scriptures we look to the words of the Psalm we sing as our responsorial at mass and then we turn to the Gospel parable of Lazarus and the rich man. First, the Psalmist reminds us: “[The Lord] secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry” (Ps 146:7). The Psalm’s confident message evokes the words eloquently expressed by Amos and repeated by Dr. King, that we must: “let justice surge like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:24), turning away from the complacency and self-satisfaction that the prophet decried in today’s passage.
Next, Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man teaches us that those who wish to be his disciples must turn away from the sort of arrogance excoriated by Amos and his fellow prophets, because the imagined self-sufficiency of the arrogant is precisely what prevents them from approaching the Lord with open and humble hearts. To this very point, in his exhortation Gaudete et Exultate, Pope Francis said: “once we think we are rich, we can become so self-satisfied that we leave no room for God’s word, for the love of our brothers and sisters, or for the enjoyment of the most important things in life” (GE 68).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.