“Woe to those ensconced so snugly in Zion and those who feel so safe on the mountain of Samaria. They will be the first to be exiled; the sprawlers’ revelry is over.”
There is no escaping the contempt felt by the prophet Amos for the prosperous society of his day. The excesses that Amos condemned continue in our modern world. Amos, in his smaller world, condemned a society that concentrated immense wealth into the hands of the fortunate few. His caustic comments, detailing ivory beds, bawling to the sound of harps and drinking wine by the bowlful, were a condemnation of the lifestyle that mindlessly exploited the poor. While Amos was uncomfortable with conspicuous wealth, he was even less comfortable with a society that structured itself so as to safeguard its wealth at the expense of the poor. “They use the finest oil for anointing themselves, but about the ruin of Joseph they do not care at all.” A modern equivalent might be: they drive in cars and care nothing for those who walk miles for clean water.
Whatever wealth we possess, be it great or small, brings with it responsibilities. Most of the time we, like the drunken revellers condemned by Amos, are scarcely aware of the complex web that links us to each other, leaving some rich at the expense of the poor. Whenever we buy something, for example, we should ensure that those who produce our goods are adequately rewarded. This rarely happens in a retail market that insists on the cheapest possible price for everything.
Throughout his celebrated visit Pope Benedict underlined the rightful place of religious values in the conduct of our society. He has, in gentler language, made the same plea that ran throughout the Book of Amos. The compassion and love of God are at the heart of our Christian values. Such values cannot be a purely private concern. They must govern the decisions whereby we care for the very poorest in our society. Painful though this might be, we must be willing to diminish our own expectations so as to enhance the prospects of the poor on our own doorstep and throughout the world. A longing for the common good dominates both the Book of Amos and the social teaching of Pope Benedict.
Luke’s parable of the poor man Lazarus and the rich man dressed in fine purple is deeply disturbing. The rich man was not condemned simply because he was rich; he was condemned because he had failed to notice the poor man at his doorstep, had failed to notice one so needy that he longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. In some parts of the world the very poorest literally depend on the rubbish that we export, the scraps that fall from our throwaway society. The rich man had spectacularly refused to accept any moral responsibility for his wealth. He simply enjoyed what he had without any further thought.
The subsequent dialogue between Abraham and the rich man condemned both his neglect and its underlying attitudes. Self-indulgent wealth isolates itself in a mindset beyond the reach of God. When the rich man pleaded for forgiveness, Abraham spoke of a gulf so deep that none might cross it. Let us pray that our attitudes to wealth might never create an unbridgeable gulf that puts us beyond the mind