Though both the first and third readings on Sunday address our refusal to care for the poor, there's a huge difference between Amos' and Luke's theologies.

We modern Christians have no problem identifying with what a "christianized" Abraham says in the Gospel (Lk 16: 19-31). "My child," he tells the deceased, suffering rich man, "remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented."

My mother often reminded me of Luke's afterlife reward-and-punishment theology when I complained about people not being punished for their evil actions. "Don't worry," she assured me: "they'll get theirs after they die."

Pursuits

The unknown author of I Timothy agrees with both Luke and my mother (I Tim 6: 11-16). "You, a person of God," he writes, "pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life. To which you were called....Keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ.'"

The good and evil we do in this life must be judgment against the background of an eternal life of reward or punishment. Good people shouldn't expect to receive their true reward until after their physical deaths; at the same time, evil people will receive their punishment. Most of us can't imagine how we'd have the strength to obey God's commandments if there weren't a heaven or hell.

Yet Amos knows of neither (Amos 6: 1, 4-7). Belief in an afterlife doesn't become a part of Jewish faith until a hundred years before Jesus' birth. It was only then that some Pharisees took a leap in faith.

Their giant step forward eventually changed the way many Jews, including Jesus, viewed the consequences of their moral actions. No longer is reward and punishment restricted to one's natural life-span.

One of the major difficulties we encounter in reading the Hebrew Scriptures is that almost none of its authors share such a belief. Amos, for instance, prophesies almost 700 years before heaven and hell become a Jewish faith option. But he's even more direct and biting in his condemnation of wealthy persons' indifference to the poor than Jesus.

"Woe to the complacent in Zion!" he shouts. "Lying on beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock and calves from the stall!....They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best of oils; yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!"

Why, oh why?

The prophet can't understand the actions of the rich. Why, for instance, would anyone withhold grain from the poor and feed it to animals who could just as easily graze on grass? (Of course, he knows the answer; Grain-fed meat is more tender than grass-fed.)

Without belief in an afterlife, why do Amos and all the other prophets insist on an option for the poor? He doesn't think Yahweh's going to send the good to heaven and the evil to hell. He's simply concerned about the social environment here and now.

Amos believes Yahweh's loving presence is best demonstrated and surfaced in the love Yahweh's people show to one another. And since God is most concerned for the helpless, God's people are expected to be concerned for the helpless.

We notice even today how often Jews are in the forefront of social justice issues. It's an essential part of Jewish morality to improve the environment in which we live. As far as we can tell, Jesus also emphasized that environment. He never could have imagined that some of His followers would stress the afterlife so much that this life would become just an afterthought.

(9/23/04)