Up With a Twist

By Rev. J.C. Austin

As many of you know, I was an English major in college, and one day while studying the poetry of T.S. Eliot, the professor began the class by announcing that we were going to read a poem with one of the most shocking beginnings in literature.  “It starts off gently, beautiful, inviting,” he said, and began to read from Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The first two lines go like this: “Let us go then, you and I / when the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized on a table,” and he brought his hand down with a loud smack on the lectern as he finished.

He paused for a long moment, hand frozen on the lectern, and finally looked up.  “Where did THAT come from?’” he asked; “‘a patient etherized on a table?’ When he invites you to join him ‘when the evening is spread out against the sky,’ you’re expecting him to say something about twinkling stars or soft moonlight; anything but like a body numbed for surgery. And right then, with that one shocking image, you know that this journey he’s inviting you on is not going to go the way you think.”

That’s pretty much what Amos does in this passage. It starts out gently, with a beautiful, inviting vision: “[God] said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘a basket of summer fruit.’”  Now, isn’t that lovely?  Who wouldn’t like to be presented with a nice basket of ripe fruit harvested at the end of summer?[1] But then God responds with one of the most shocking sentences in Scripture: “the end has come upon my people Israel,” God tells Amos.  Not punishment, not judgment, but the end.  Where did THAT come from?

Weren’t we just talking about fruit?  It’s not quite as confusing in the Hebrew; the words for “summer fruit” and “end” look and probably sounded almost exactly the same, so it’s partly a play on words.[2]  But if this basket of harvested fruit is supposed to be Israel, then what seemed lovely is suddenly shocking.  Harvested fruit is either about to be eaten or it is about to rot away, and there’s no other option.  You can’t put harvested fruit back on the tree. The end has come, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

So, even though this image comes at the beginning of the passage, it’s what we might call a twist ending if this was a film or a book. Twist endings, when the ending goes very differently than you would think, are a classic element of stories and books and movies, and they seem to have gotten more popular than ever in the last few decades; in fact, three of the biggest films of 2019 all had significant plot twists in them: Parasite, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Us.  When done well, they make the entire story take on new depth and power and meaning; when done poorly, they leave you feeling confused or even cheated.

When it comes to Amos, it’s not entirely clear which of those we should be feeling, but it is certainly a major plot twist. Amos is hardly unique among the Old Testament prophets in proclaiming judgment and passing sentence against the people of Israel on behalf of God. The difference is that the others never declare the end coming upon the people of Israel. Even when they are warning Israel of God’s judgment on their wrongdoing, the door is still left open for repentance, for turning around and coming back, for those with the determination to do the hard work of faithfulness.

Isaiah warns that the people are about to be taken into exile, but also promises that a faithful remnant will return.  Jeremiah foresees the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its people, but still urges them to repent and tells them that God will bring them back to live in their own land.  Things are bad, they say, but don’t worry, you won’t go out like this. It’s going to work out; there will still be a chance to come back, to make things like they were. But not Amos; Amos is unrelenting in his condemnation and gloom. The fact that he sees a definitive end at all is a twist ending, a sign that things are not going to end the way the Israelites have always thought.

But as disturbing as all that is, there’s also something oddly liberating about it. Because most of the rest of us go desperately looking for some loophole, some silver lining, some larger explanation about what Amos must really be saying, like prospectors swirling his words around in a pan, sorting through the dark mud in hopes of finding a piece of gold. But the truth is, Amos doesn’t think that there is any gold in these hills; no veins of hope to tap into, no nuggets of forgiveness to stumble upon.

And he doesn’t try to pretend otherwise. “The end has come upon my people Israel,” Amos declares, and that’s it. He serves that sharp truth not with any sweetness to cut it or mixers to disguise it. No, if this prophecy was a cocktail, it would be served straight up: nothing but the sharp spirit itself, and presented ice-cold, strained out, and undiluted. But even if the straightforward truth is liberating, it is also difficult to swallow. Because we believe that this is somehow the Word of the Lord, not simply for Amos’ audience, but for us, as well. So what are we supposed to do with this message?

Perhaps the place to start is to try and answer God’s question to Amos: “what do you see?” Well, first of all, we see that Amos thinks God is angry, and that God has plenty of reasons to feel that way. The people of Israel are making a mockery of their identity as God’s people. They complain about having to observe God’s holy days because they get in the way of profiting even more from their corrupt business practices and their exploitation of those who are poor. He argues that their greed is so boundless that they literally dehumanize those who are poor, turning them into commodities to be bought and traded like any other object, valuing them on par with a pair of sandals.  Amos is telling them that to God, such oppression of other human beings is not only wrong, it is blasphemous, a desecration of the image of God which every human being bears.  And that must end.

Amos is also clear that the problem here is not about certain individuals; it is a systemic problem, involving the whole society and its economic and social structures which are built and carried out by humans.  And that is something that we ourselves have a really hard time with acknowledging, in our hyper-individualistic society. We assume that anything that happens is the action of an individual or, at most, a group of individuals who make a conscious decision to take that action and are therefore the ones responsible for it.

But that is, at best, an extremely incomplete if not outright misleading analysis of most social problems. Yes, sometimes we make clear individual decisions that contribute to building such a world.  But far more often, we simply collude with one another in accepting a society that makes injustice seem either inevitable or invisible, while making love and compassion and justice seem irrational. And even when we finally recognize injustice, we tend to minimize and compartmentalize and individualize it rather than acknowledge its pervasiveness.

I am sure, in Amos’ day, there were plenty of individual grain-traders who did not “practice deceit with false balances,” rigging their scales so they could require more money for less grain and have it appear to balance out. And yet the problem was systemic enough for him to call it out against the society as a whole. The fact that many grain-traders were honest and fair people doesn’t alter the fact that systemic economic injustice, including widespread dishonesty by grain-traders, was dehumanizing and cheating the poor people of Amos’ day so regularly that Amos felt that it was a basic characteristic of Israel’s society. And it made God angry, as indifference to injustice always makes God angry

Now, we often hear people say, “I don’t believe in an angry God, I believe in a loving God.”  It is usually a reaction to the church’s long and sad history of manipulative, coercive, and even abusive preaching about God’s wrath and our damnation if we do not “find God.” Amos, though, doesn’t even think finding God is an option: “They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east,” he warns; “they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.”

But there, finally, of all places, is good news.  Amos doesn’t realize it, of course, and he certainly doesn’t intend it that way; he thinks it is God cutting off the last escape route to reconciliation, ensuring only judgment and death. But he does not know the whole story, and he would have been very surprised at the twist that God has planned, because God’s story goes differently that Amos would think. The good news here, the twist in the story that Amos does not know and cannot foresee, is that God makes sure that there is no way we can find God’s word on our own…and then God sends God’s Word to find us, in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, so that it is not life that ends, but death and everything else that seeks to bring an end to God’s will for us and this world.

Which is also why God does, in fact, get angry. Like any parent who loves their children, God gets angry when we hurt each other, disown each other, cheat each other, exploit each other; when we cling to the very things that Christ came to conquer and wield them against each other. It is precisely because God is a loving God that God is an angry God: angry and loving enough to come to us in Jesus Christ and start taking them out of our hands and breaking them across his knees: hatred and indifference, suspicion and violence, division and oppression, anything that offends God’s righteousness, and grace, and love.

But God doesn’t do it in a sudden and sweeping wave of destruction to end it all. Rather, God makes the surprising choice to patiently cultivate new life in Christ within and between each of us, planting us and tending us as seeds of the kingdom that continues to take root, and grow, and bear God’s fruit, so that this world can taste and see that the Lord is good.  That’s the twist that ends God’s story of salvation. And in and through Jesus Christ, we can see it coming all along.

[1] The Hebrew word for “summer fruit,” qayis, means “summer” and can be used to mean fruit harvested at the end of the season. Cf. Donald Gowan, “Amos,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abington, 1996), 414.

[2] Cf. Al Wolters, “Wordplay and Dialect in Amos 8:1-2,” JETS 31 (1988) 407-10.

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