by Kurt K. Hendel
Bernard, Fischer, Westberg Distinguished Ministry Professor of Reformation History
Dear people of God, the prophet Amos confronted his contemporaries with a powerful message of judgment and of hope, and he also shared with them a vision of faithful living. The first lesson for this week is illustrative of the prophet’s proclamation, and I want to focus particularly on the last verse of the pericope because it encapsulates Amos’ message which is, ultimately, God’s word to us: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” [Amos 5:24] These are evocative and paradoxical words, and they can be understood both as words of judgment and of grace. They are also a hopeful command since they clarify the divine vision of what it means to live life in God’s presence and because they bring us the assurance that we can strive to make that vision a reality.
Justice and righteousness are often used interchangeably and in a juridical sense in Scripture. Hence, they can refer to what medieval theologians called God’s “active righteousness” whereby God judges human beings justly since God is righteous and just. We can, therefore, interpret these powerful words of Yahweh, spoken by Amos, as a divine self-exhortation to carry out divine judgment. In light of the people’s mechanical worship practices, their religiosity without a deep commitment to the covenantal relationship God had established with them and their indifference to the poor and the suffering, God steps into the role of Judge and announces that justice will roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream because God will carry out justice and insist that righteousness prevail. If the words are interpreted in this way, they obviously fall under the rubric of the law and stand as a warning to believers that God will not stand by idly when they fail to be God’s people who diligently strive to do God’s will.
Of course, God’s words were not only intended for the believers of old. They address us as well. The themes of judgment and of accountability are persistent ones during these last weeks of the church year, and God’s message in our time and our day remains the same as it was almost three millennia ago during the days of Amos. It also remains as pertinent and challenging as it was long ago because human realities have not changed significantly. Indeed, one could argue that they have actually deteriorated. At least the people in Amos’ time worshipped regularly and attempted to fulfill their cultic responsibilities—at least they sought to follow some of God’s commands. While religiosity and what is generally termed “spirituality” are evident in our time, much of the world, surely in the northern hemisphere, is highly secularized. Humans no longer have a theocentric perspective but an anthropocentric one, and if God’s existence is recognized at all God is so often pushed into the margins or the gaps of life. That reality has consequences as humanity seems to be driven by an avaricious spirit that focuses on the accumulation of things and on the self rather than on the worship of God, the respect for God’s creation, an altruistic commitment to the common good or even the pursuit of individual spiritual priorities. Violence is a persistent reality in our neighborhoods, respect for the neighbor is a matter of choice, the care of the earth is sacrificed to the quest for economic gain and the concentration of wealth in small segments of society is ardently defended while the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others is viewed as foolishness rather than as worthy of admiration.
However, God still lives. God still expects and exercises justice and righteousness. God’s judgment is still operative, and it is still addressed to God’s people, indeed, to all of humanity. Ignoring these realities or denying them does not alter them, and God’s judgment impacts humanity’s relationship with God and with the whole creation. It is important that we recognize this and are honest about who we are and what we do or fail to do, for God’s and for the sake of the world.
While proclaiming the law and recognizing that God’s judgment is essential, it is never enough. The law confronts us with reality, with our reality, but it can also lead to hypocrisy or despair. The law alone does not effect radical personal, spiritual transformation, although it might result in immediate though, most likely, temporary and superficial change. Another word is, therefore, necessary.
Interestingly and significantly, the words of Yahweh spoken by Amos can also be viewed as words of grace and of good news. Indeed, I believe, that they are intended to be interpreted in such a way as well. God’s exhortation, “Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” then reveals God’s will, desire and intention that justice and righteousness become a reality, not only in the divine-human but also in the human-human relationship. It is important to note, however, that these memorable words are not simply a revelation of God’s intention. They are also an assurance that God implements that intention—that God makes it a reality. Justice and righteousness are, after all, never human accomplishments. We can become God’s instruments in the quest for justice and righteousness, but we cannot achieve these divine ideals by ourselves. We cannot even be God’s means unless we have first been justified and declared righteous by God.
As Christians we necessarily interpret God’s words in light of the New Testament message, and we are assured by St. Paul in the first chapter of Romans that we become righteous through the gift of faith. Luther, who was profoundly impacted by Paul’s assurance, insists that the righteousness that is granted in and through faith is Christ’s very own righteousness. Thus it is a gift that comes to us extra nos, from outside of us, but it then becomes a divine power within us that transforms us in radical ways. It makes us righteous in God’s sight, but it also sanctifies and restores our nature that has been so radically corrupted and compromised by sin. Justice and righteousness are, therefore, not only a hopeful expectation. They have become a reality because of Christ’s redemptive work and the gracious imputation of Christ’s gifts to us. People of faith, who have been declared and made righteous through the justifying and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit are then freed and empowered to be God’s agents as God keeps God’s intentions and brings justice and righteousness into our world.
Hence, Yahweh’s words, spoken by the prophet, also become a command. God’s directive to “let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” is addressed to God’s people, and it is not an unreasonable or an unattainable command. Rather, it is a hopeful vision and an assurance that believers are able to be agents of justice and righteousness because they themselves have been made righteous and are, therefore, free and empowered to strive for justice in the world. In Scripture, the righteous or the just are those who are accompanied by God, who strive to do God’s will, who share God’s vision of life. They are people who seek the well-being of the whole community, who live in peace and who are peace-makers in the midst of conflict. They appreciate all that they have been given as God’s gracious gifts and eagerly share what they have with their neighbors who do not have enough. The just are advocates of those whose voices have been silenced and who are ignored or oppressed by those in power. They respect others and honor the humanity of every person. They recognize the earth and all its creatures as God’s precious creation that nourishes life here and now. Therefore, they are also careful stewards of all that belongs to God. When just and righteous people live this way, justice does flow like a river and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream. Then God’s vision becomes a reality, God’s expectations are fulfilled and God’s people are what they can be.
All of us gathered in this sacred space this morning have been justified and declared to be God’s righteous people. We are, therefore, free and empowered to be divine instruments of justice and righteousness in our world. That is God’s command and God’s promise to us, and this is the good news that I share with you this morning. May you be blessed and be a blessing. Amen.
Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 70; I Thess. 4:13-18; Mt. 25:1-13