Amos and the Poor

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

The book of Amos is a locus classicus of God’s concern for the poor. It would be useful, then, to examine exactly what activity Amos condemns in God’s name. We tend to look at these passages with 21st century political and economic concerns without first trying to understand Amos’ own world.

Amos contains many vague, abstract references to the Israelites’ abuse of their poor. Exactly what abuse of the poor does Amos condemn? The most specific charge in today’s lection is found in 5:12 – bribery and turning away the needy in the gate (i.e. the court of law). Elsewhere in Amos, the prophet condemns Israel for selling/buying the needy for silver and the righteous for a pair of shoes (2:6, 8:6), using dishonest scales (8:5) and defrauding the consumer (selling chaff for wheat) (8:6).

The fraudulent merchandising practices of 8:5-6 are clearly understandable. The merchants were so eager to profit that they cheated their poor customers. They loved their opportunities for dishonest gain so much that even God’s Sabbath was merely a nuisance (8:5).

Another abuse of the poor appears to have come from the landed class who exploited their tenant farmers. Amos 5:11 may speak to this practice. The NASB interprets “bashas” as “heavy rent” and the KJV takes “maseth” as “burden” of wheat. The sharecropping system (and the manorial system, and the feudal system – and even the industrial company-town system) have historically been subject to abuses. The landholder/owner has the ability, if inclined to do so, to take great advantage of the relative weakness of the tenant/worker. The tenant-farming system is never favorable to the tenant and a dishonest landlord would make this situation hopeless. An abusive landlord could set terms or conditions that kept the tenant in perpetual poverty and indentured servitude forever.

(Alternatively, many other translations interpret “maseth” as “taxes,” with the implication that these are overly burdensome taxes exacted by the government. In reality, it is Amos’s words in 5:11 are less precise. “Bashas” is “treading down” and “maseth” is “portion lifted up” and could have a variety of meanings.)

The law made provisions for those who, due to circumcstnaces, had to sell their inherited property or their services to another. The law’s intent was to provide those who fell into poverty a way out. The Sabbatical Year (Deuteronmy 15) provided for the cancellation of debts every 7 years and the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) provided for the return of land and release of slaves every 50. Furthermore, the people of God were prohibited from trying to find ways around the gracious provisions of Sabbatical and Jubilee.

This passage from Deuteronomy is an example of what God intended:

“If there is a poor person among you, one of your brothers within any of your gates in the land the LORD your God is giving you, you must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Instead, you are to open your hand to him and freely loan him enough for whatever need he has. Be careful that there isn’t this wicked thought in your heart, ‘The seventh year, the year of canceling debts, is near,’ and you are stingy toward your poor brother and give him nothing. He will cry out to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty. Give to him, and don’t have a stingy heart when you give, and because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do. For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘You must willingly open your hand to your afflicted and poor brother in your land.’ “If your fellow Hebrew, a man or woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, you must set him free in the seventh year. When you set him free, do not send him away empty-handed. Give generously to him from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress. You are to give him whatever the LORD your God has blessed you with. (Deuteronomy 15:7-14)

The merchants and the landlords, however, weren’t interested in forgiving debts. They took the poor to court over their real or contrived debts, with the result that the poor were being sold into slavery and having their possessions confiscated. That’s the meaning of “selling/buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes.” The merchants or landlords were using even the trivial debt (“a pair of shoes”) to enrich themselves at the poor’s expense.

Even worse, they insured their success at trial by bribing the judges. God’s law, however, demanded impartial judgment: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:15 ESV)

Amos, then, condemns Israel for the dishonesty and exploitive greediness of its wealthy citizens. Their acquisitiveness subordinated the love of God and neighbor – and the rule of law – to naked self-interest. Amos’ specific concerns – bribery, dishonest business practices and disproportionate penalties for economic failure – are certainly relevant today. Even the broader concern of the giving the poor a hopeful future can find support in Amos’ denunciations. Amos’ condemnation of those who abuse the poor, however, is not an infinitely large tent. The further one wanders from Amos’ specific concerns into contemporary political and economic policies, the more humble one should be in claiming God’s authority for one’s own convictions.