Preachers usually take time to pray over our sermons because we want to make certain we are hearing the Word of God accurately. We want to clearly convey that Word to our listeners.
So imagine if in your prayerful preparation the Holy Spirit tells you to stand up and call women in your congregation “cows.” Suppose you preached to them: “You cows who do nothing but graze and eat at the expense of others.”
I can tell you that several things will occur if you say that! One, everyone will be awake and will be ready to get up and leave, especially the women! Two, if you’re the pastor, you might want to think about where your next job will be. Three, you can expect a call from your conference bishop. (And those reading this can probably add additional responses!)
Strangely enough, that is exactly what God told the Israelite prophet Amos to say. He says in Amos 4:1: “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring wine, let us drink!’”
Amos was a sheep breeder in the northern kingdom called Israel (sometimes referred to as Samaria or Ephraim in the prophets). Like his contemporary Hosea, who was also in the northern kingdom, and his contemporary Isaiah, who preached in Judah, Amos saw the injustice and perversion of worship that corrupted the people of God.
Here are some of the prophetic warnings and judgments that Amos preached to Israel:
1. Israel abused the poor and engaged in rampant sexual immorality (Amos 2:6, 7)
2. Israel commanded God’s prophets to stop prophesying (2:12)
3. Israel set up idolatrous worship in Bethel and Gilgal (3:14)
4. Israel thought that “the day of the Lord” would mean that God would judge the nations, not realizing the judgment was upon her (5:18-20)
5. Israel let her worship music take the place of just and righteous actions (5:23, 24).
Look again at Amos 4:1 and see the audacity of calling out the wives of the rich and famous in Israel. Their husbands practiced the oppression of the poor that led to the wealth and privilege these women enjoyed in their finery. It did not matter to them who suffered at their expense, as long as they had their fill of the best things in life.
Lest anyone reading this think that Amos, or I, are picking on women, that is not the case. The men and women were all responsible for the corruption in the land. Amos addressed them because the comfortable women thought they had no role, no guilt and no responsibility for the corruption that was destroying their land. They had a sense of privilege but no sense of responsibility.
Privilege. It’s a loaded word today in our social and political discourse. The New King James Version does not use this word. But the reality is present.
You can see it in 1 Kings 21, where the Israelite king Ahab uses his status and privilege to murder Naboth and steal his property. You can see it in the life of Judah’s king, David, who takes another man’s wife as his own and then arranges the murder of the man to cover his own sin.
You can see it in Acts 5, where Ananias and Sapphira hold back part of the proceeds of the sale of property rather than give the previously declared total. You see it in 3 John 9, where a man in the church named Diotrephes “loves to have the preeminence.” In the 3 John passage, preeminence literally means “loves to be first.”
That sort of makes me nervous when I realize that!
The issue is not whether there is privilege for some people; there clearly is. Privilege gets you into certain universities, gets you certain jobs and gets you invited to certain parties. If you remove privilege from one group of people, you simply move it to another group. There will always be privilege.
Many of us as followers of Jesus have privileges of wealth, security and opportunity of which we are not even conscious. In many instances, those are the result of hard work, diligence and the blessings of God. So the issue is not whether or not we may have certain privileges. Rather, the issue is our awareness of justice, mercy, and responsibility related to those privileges.
If my privilege has come at the expense of others, as was the case with Amos’ “cows of Bashan,” then we have a responsibility to be aware of injustice. This is not because of any political philosophy, laws or commentators. It is because God has placed His church in the world to be a light to the nations.
It is also because of “the law of love” mentioned in Romans 13:8 and 10 and Galatians 5:14. Writing to the capital of the Roman Empire, the privileged city of Rome, Paul reminded Christians there that “love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (13:10). We must care about those who are oppressed, not just ourselves.
This year the IPHC has been reflecting on the importance of justice. We do not view this core value from the political spectrums of our day, though we can certainly have open yet critical minds to learn. Rather, we view justice from the standpoint that God in Christ has called us as followers of Jesus to be witnesses to God’s plan of redeeming this lost world.
You and I may have privilege, but we do not use our blessings to oppress others. We live justly and responsibly before others as a witness to the glory of the God. We are indeed privileged with the “riches of glory in Christ Jesus,” riches and privilege that enable us to care that “justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).
Originally published in Encourage magazine.