The prophet Amos continues to judge the people of Israel for the contradiction they are living: they think that they are justified by the fulfillment of religious ceremonies at the sanctuaries of Bethel, Dan, Gilgal and Beersheba, and, at the same time, they are committing sins of social injustice and oppression. Not only do the people oppress the poor and neglect justice, but they turn justice and righteousness into poison and wormwood (an intensely bitter shrub). “Society is so lacking in justice and so misdirected in its public worship that Amos calls for ‘justice [to] roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (5:24)” (T. Leclerc, Introduction to the Prophets, Paulist Press, 133).
Even the king, who is supposed to defend the poor and guarantee justice, is perpetuating injustice in Israel. Furthermore, “those with wealth and influence are able to approach the royal court and to pressure courts to enact laws and policies that force the poor to pay higher taxes and levies. When the poor are unable to meet their obligations, they forfeit their land, goods, even children, and must work for their creditors in payment of their debt” (T. Leclerc, Introduction to the Prophets, Paulist Press, 133).
Amos considers the worship at Bethel as sinful, perhaps because of the golden calf there. In fact, God says to the people: “Seek me and live, but do not seek Bethel and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beesheba ” (Amos 5:4-5). Amos mocks the people saying to them: “Come to Bethel and transgress; to Gilgal and multiply transgression” (Amos 4:4). Seeking God goes hand in hand with seeking what is good, hating evil, and working for justice (5:14-15a). God is not condemning religious ritual through Amos. Rather, what is unacceptable is separating God’s religious requirements from God’s ethical commands (see T. Leclerc, Introduction to the Prophets, Paulist Press, 133-134). The Psalmist today also communicates God’s displeasure with external fulfillment of sacrifices and burnt offerings and external profession of his law and covenant, when, in truth, the hearts of the people are far from him and they internally despise the discipline of his saving word.
Through their injustice, Israel has betrayed the Lord and rebelled against him (Amos 4:4-5; 5:21). Their false religion perpetuates “the delusion that ritual without deeds guarantees redemption. In fact, restoration of society will come through the practice of justice, the primary quality of relationship to God in the covenant (5:15,24)” (M. Duggan, The Consuming Fire, Ignatius Press, 248). Amos does not cast aside liturgy as irrelevant and delusive. “To the contrary, he insists that authentic worship is the source of power for the redemption of society. The Lord responds to the prayers of those who intercede for mercy on behalf of the people (7:1-6). New life comes to the land through a humble seeking of the Lord in repentance (5:4)” (M. Duggan, The Consuming Fire, 248).
The people are mistaken in giving importance to external purity and not purity of heart, in thinking that justification comes from external fulfillment of the law and not through faith informed by love and manifested in good works. As Paul will teach, we are not justified through the works of the old law, but through faith. And, as James will teach, we are not justified by an external profession of faith, but through works of love.
Jesus will teach his disciples today, through the powerful sign of an exorcism, that he was the power and authority to cleanse what is unclean. “That Jesus chose to bring his disciples to this Gentile territory (a ritually unclean land), where they encounter two demoniacs (in the power of unclean spirits) dwelling among the tombs (an unclean place) with swine (unclean animals), underscores the uncleanness of this scene” (C. Mitch and E. Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, Baker Academic, 131). Jesus has power and authority over disease, leprosy, paralysis, fevers, the wind and the sea, and even evil spirits. The demons fear and tremble because they think that Jesus is coming to judge them before the appointed time, namely, before the day of judgment at the end of time (Matthew 5:41). The day of judgment will come, but for now Jesus casts the demons out of the two demoniacs and into a herd of swine.
It is interesting to see that while Jesus’ signs and miracles often lead to faith in him as the Messiah among the Jews, the pagans are afraid of Jesus’ supernatural power and beg him to leave. Like the people of Israel who rejected the word of God spoken through the prophet Amos, the people of Gararenes reject the Word of God, Jesus Christ. They do not recognize the gift of God, for they are in the presence of the one who establishes justice on earth by doing the will of the Father and reconciles men with God. By faith, we accept Jesus into our hearts. He completely transforms us and enables us to work with him in building up his Kingdom of justice, peace and love.
Readers may contact Father Jason Mitchell at [email protected].