The Book of Amos
Today's First Reading comes from the Book of the Prophet Amos. To fully understand this reading, and the prophet's message, it helps to know something about the historical background of Amos' time.
About 931 B.C., the kingdom of Israel, which had been united by King David, split into two kingdoms. Several years earlier, David's son Solomon had become king and placed a heavy tax burden on the people to finance both the building of the Temple and Solomon's luxurious lifestyle. When Solomon's son Rehoboam assumed the throne, the people of Israel's northern tribes asked him to relieve them of some of that tax burden. The old men who were advisers to Rehoboam told him to do so that he might be a servant to the people and earn their loyalty. Instead, Rehoboam foolishly chose to listen to his young friends, who advised him to tax the people even more and threaten them with harsh language. The people successfully rebelled under the leadership of Jeroboam. Israel was split into the kingdom of Judah (the tribes of Judah and Benjamin) in the south and the kingdom of Israel (the other ten tribes) in the north (see 1 Kings 12).
A change in worship accompanied the change in leadership in the northern kingdom of Israel. The people no longer went to the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the central sanctuary designated by God as the place for worship. Instead, Jeroboam made two golden calves and told the people that these idols were their “gods.” He set up sanctuaries for worship in Bethel and Gilgal and high places throughout the kingdom, and he appointed priests for himself who were not Levites (the priestly tribe chosen by God). He even set up his own festivals. Under Jeroboam's guidance, then, the people abandoned the true worship of God.
Amos was called to the prophetic ministry during the reign of Jeroboam II (c. 788-747). Amos was born in Judah, where he worked as “a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.” Unlike many prophets of his day, he did not come from a family of prophets; he was essentially a farmer, who cared for his livestock and harvested the wild figs of his sycamore trees. But he received God's call, and he obeyed. He went to the northern kingdom of Israel to speak God's word.
The northern kingdom was experiencing a period of prosperity during Amos' time, and with prosperity came corruption. Amos delivered a message to the people of Israel that contained the following elements: 1. a condemnation of social injustice and corruption, especially the oppression of the poor by the rich and powerful; 2. an admonition against the empty religious practices of the northern kingdom (for the rich and powerful, worship was all about show; they took part in opulent liturgies and extravagant festivals at Bethel and Gilgal that they thought were enough to please God); 3. a call for true religion that blended external worship with internal devotion and social justice (i.e.,care for the poor); 4. a warning that if Israel didn't mend its ways and follow God's law, it would be subject to divine judgment and punishment; 5. a hopeful promise that even with this darkness, God would bring salvation.
Israel didn't accept Amos' message, as we see in today's reading where Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, essentially tells Amos to get lost, to take his message and go back to Judah. Amaziah was upset that Amos had dared to speak against the corruption of King Jeroboam II and to predict that the northern kingdom of Israel would go into exile.
But Amos was right. Israel did go into exile. In 721 B.C., the Assyrians overran the northern kingdom. Many Israelites were slaughtered. Others were carried off into a foreign land never to return. God's word, spoken through His prophet, had been fulfilled.