By Paul Nancarrow
This passage is a locus classicus of the biblical trope of the prophet speaking hard truth to entrenched power. Amos receives a vision from God of a plumb line, which by a word play he understands to mean a standard of measurement by which God will judge the faithlessness of Israel, and especially its worship of other gods at “high places” and “sanctuaries.” Because of this faithlessness, Amos proclaims that the people will lose their land and the royal house will be overthrown by violence. When Amos preaches the vision, Amaziah the priest reports his words to Jeroboam, and warns Amos himself to leave the country and not to speak words against the king in the king’s own sanctuary.
There was always in pre-exilic Israel a testy relationship between prophet and king: prophets were closely connected to the throne and were involved in the anointing of kings, as exemplified first by Samuel and David; yet at the same time prophets were the ones — sometimes the only ones — who could defy the king and call him to the recognition of God’s justice, as for instance Nathan did with David, or Elijah with Ahab.
Here Amos takes on the second of those prophetic roles. He is opposed here, however, not by Jeroboam himself, but by Amaziah, who represents the sanctuary power-structure, whose own interests were bound up with maintaining royal prerogative and privilege. It is sometimes said that in ancient Israel the priesthood was inherently conservative, tending to serve the interests of the kings and the status quo, while prophecy was inherently progressive, concerned with justice and the well-being of the people. That may be too much to generalize from passages such as this — after all, there were official court prophets who spoke the party line, such as we find in Jeremiah; and there were prophets who were also priests, such as Isaiah and Ezekiel, who were far from the status quo.
What is going on in this passage is perhaps less a clash between prophet and priest as such, than a clash between one who serves the sanctuary of a corrupt king and one who claims to serve no one but God. When Amaziah challenges Amos to go ply his prophetic trade elsewhere, Amos specifically denies that it is his trade: he will not accept the title “prophet,” and he denies any training or affiliation with the “sons of the prophets” or prophetic guild, either in the court or among the charismatic bands that withdrew into the wilderness for prayers and ecstasies (eg, as in 2 Kings 2).
Instead of being professionally trained as a prophet, Amos was a simple worker, until God called him and sent him to speak God’s words of judgment. Therefore Amos’s motives for his speech are presented as strictly derived from divine aims for justice, while Amaziah’s motives are mixed, including both worship and self-interest. Paired specifically with the gospel reading, it sets the stage for a more deadly conflict between prophetic preaching and the self-protection of entrenched power.
The psalm, usually chosen to echo the theme of the first reading, here serves as a mirror opposite. Where the Amos passage threatens desolation for the land because of the corruption of its ruling power and the syncretistic worship of its people, the psalm holds up an idealized portrayal of the land, where harvest, increase, and prosperity are guaranteed by God, because “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
This is a song of a time when God’s immediate presence in Israel will bring salvation, glory, truth, and peace, because the people will (finally) “turn their hearts” to God. Over against the Amos passage, the psalm serves as an idealized promise of how divine aims can be embodied in human experiences and human-and-natural communities, when the mixture of motives depicted in Amaziah and his ilk is replaced with pure devotion to God’s justice.
The opening section of the Letter to the Ephesians is remarkable for its cosmological breadth, its temporal depth, and its far-reaching proclamation of the gospel. The passage begins with an acclamation of mutual blessing — “Blessed be God … who has blessed us” — asserting from the beginning that the Ephesian believers are joined to God as co-creators of blessing. This is only the first of a series of connections the author makes between the particular, actual situation of the Ephesians and the all-encompassing, universal perspective of God, the “Adventure of the Universe as One.”
The believers share in Christ “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” even while they remain concretely embodied on earth; and their present-time experience of being chosen by God is rooted in God’s election from “before the foundation of the world.” This is a juxtaposition of planes of existence and time and eternity that would be almost unheard of in what was then the prevailing Hellenistic cosmology. The Ephesians’ partnership with God is not only originated from before time, but is also oriented toward a fulfillment beyond time: they are a part of God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in” Christ, the final union of “things in heaven and things on earth” when all Creation will be the whole incarnation of Christ.
The Ephesians’ belief has cosmic dimensions, but it also intensely intimate and personal: in the present time they experience for themselves “redemption,” “forgiveness of trespasses,” and “the riches of God’s grace,” while for the future they have a “pledge of our inheritance” in the fulfillment of all things, given in the baptismal “mark” of “the promised Holy Spirit.” The whole passage is a sweeping evocation of the role of believers as blessed and blessing co-creators with God, bringing into being realizations of divine aims that have both local meaning and cosmic significance.
This week’s reading continues the theme of the prophet dishonored in his own country that we saw in last week’s gospel, played out this time in the clash between John the baptizer and Herod. Where Jesus faced the residents of Nazareth “taking offense” at him, and the disciples were warned that towns would “refuse to hear them,” John is imprisoned for speaking truth to Herod’s power, and in the end he is executed for it. This is of course a foreshadowing of Jesus’ execution at the hands of Roman power — and in a way is a foreshadowing of the resurrection as well, albeit in an ironic form: as Herod’s superstitious supposition that Jesus is John raised from the dead, which is Herod’s explanation why miraculous powers are at work in him.
But what I find most interesting in this passage is the paradox of Herod’s tyranny and helplessness. Mark depicts Herod’s banquet as structured according to power and fear — more exactly, according to the use of power to try to control fear. Herod is afraid of John the Baptist, because John has criticized Herod’s marriage to his brother’s widow; yet Herod is also fascinated by John’s charismatic preaching, and respects his obvious holiness.
Herod tries to gain control over his fear by exerting his power to imprison John; this abuse of power effectively removes John’s criticism from the public eye, but it does not ease Herod’s fear, since John is now even closer to Herod and Herod’s fascination with him is only increased. Herod’s pattern is to use power to try to subvert fear, yet in so doing to make the fear even stronger. This pattern is repeated in Herodias, who also has a grudge against John and wants to kill him, but is afraid of what Herod would do to her if she succeeds.
Herodias therefore uses a different sort of power, a manipulative sort of power, over her daughter, telling her to ask for John’s head in response to Herod’s oath to give her whatever she asks. Herodias in effect tries to use her manipulative power to control her fear of both John and Herod. This pattern finally traps Herod himself: he does not want to kill John, but he is afraid of what his guests will think if they see him renege on his oath, and afraid that his failure to keep the oath might reduce his power and prestige in his subjects’ eyes. All the participants in the banquet story are in the end trapped in this pattern of fear and power and yet greater fear.
It is this being trapped in power and fear, Mark indicates, that leads people to dishonor the prophet among them. The witness of Jesus and his disciples, however, is to liberation and well-being, as indicated by the reference to exorcisms and healings in the opening verse, “for Jesus’ name had become known.” The choice for the reader — and the interpreter — is to cling to power and the fear of losing power, or to receive the prophet’s challenging word that leads to well-being and peace.