Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals, they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.
Yet I destroyed the Amorite before them, whose height was like the height of cedars, and who was as strong as oaks; I destroyed his fruit above, and his roots beneath. Also I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and led you forty years in the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorite. So, I will press you down in your place, just as a cart presses down when it is full of sheaves.
Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong shall not retain their strength, nor shall the mighty save their lives; those who handle the bow shall not stand, and those who are swift of foot shall not save themselves, nor shall those who ride horses save their lives; and those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day, says the Lord.
Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Another of his disciples said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."
Through much of the Old and most of the New Testament we meet with faith in a personal, compassionate God. But in the face of today's tirade from the prophet Amos, and on hearing the harsh statement of Jesus, "Let the dead bury their dead," we may feel disposed to argue with God just as Abraham and Jeremiah so famously did. Even if our faith is less than their's, some kind of justice and decency are on our side. Arguing with Jesus, we might recall how after his own death on the cross, his friends gave him a reverential burial. If a saying like his stirs in today's Gospel reflection, or even provokes us to argue with God, Jesus has achieved his objective in making us wrestle with life's paradoxes. His words are meant more to stir us to reflection than to provide catechism answers.
Amos was the first of a series of writing prophets in Israel, people of deep faith, troublers of the public conscience, outspoken defenders of God's honour, who by divine impulse rose out of the ranks of the people. Today's is the first of many readings from the prophets that will extend for the next seven weeks. More than any other part of the Old Testament these prophetic writings help us to understand Jesus, who was above all a prophet. In some ways both Jesus and these ancient prophets speak with such finality that they seem to bring conversation to a close. But their statements remain long within our memory and force us to reflection.
"Let the dead bury their dead" - how well this echoes the stern message of Amos. With no show of emotion, Amos cites the evidence, a long list of social abuses in which the poor were wronged and put down. The rich have trampled the heads of the weak into the dust of the earth, and forced the lowly out of the way. People who go on committing such crimes are morally dead. Amos declares that God will avenge the poor and the oppressed, just as he once saved them from Egyptian slavery.
The wealthy and comfortably off might still want to argue with God, about the proper way to structure our social economy; how to combine the necessary amount of sharing with avoiding any free-loading or moral hazard. But if they want to take Jesus seriously, they cannot refuse to question their own part in an unjust status quo. So long as they are at least open to some measure of conversion, a ray of hope always remains, for he always wants to give healing and life.
The scribe who approaches Jesus at the beginning of today's gospel speaks in a way that suggests that he has a generosity of spirit and the best of intentions, "Master, I will follow you wherever you go." In response, Jesus tempers his enthusiasm with the reality of what lies ahead for him if he becomes a disciple, "the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." He will be following someone who is always on the move, without a real home to call his own. Sometimes our generosity of spirit and our enthusiasm can come up against the harsher realities of life and in response we can become less generous and less enthusiastic. Jesus' closest disciples seemed full of enthusiasm when they left their nets by the Sea of Galilee to follow him, but when the cross came into view for Jesus and for them, they fell away. It is not always easy to retain our idealism, our enthusiasm, our generosity of spirit over the long haul, especially when the cross comes our way in one shape or form. It is then that we realize that our own enthusiasm and generosity of spirit is not enough. We need the Lord to be our strength when we lose heart, our inspiration when we are tempted to settle for less, and our refuge when we come face to face with the storms of life. We can only be faithful to our following of the Lord if we allow the Lord at the same time to be our resource, our food for the journey. That is what he wants to be. He does not ask us to go it alone but to rely on him every step of the way.