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15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (15.07.18)
Our heavenly Father has been called a ‘God of Surprises’ - a title author Gerard Hughes SJ chose for a book. Amos (760–755 BC) is upfront, in this Sunday’s First Reading, about being surprised that God chose him to be a prophet:
“I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.
The Lord took me from following the flock, and said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” (1 Amos 7:12-15)
In Israel, religious leaders were drawn from established tribes or families. Jewish Levitical priests, for example, were chosen from descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. The closer the lineage the more esteemed the priest in rank and privilege.
Was God, by his choice of Amos, breaking the mould or was He reinstating His original mould? The Amos extract gives us the clue: “I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.” The role of Amos can be likened to how Jesus, centuries later, would explain both his own role and the one He conferred upon his disciples. Interestingly, Amos is listed as one of twelve Minor Prophets.
By his own definition Amos defines himself as, what we might call, an ‘odd jobber’. That’s not to say he was unskilled. If total commitment can be classified as a skill then Amos was highly skilled. Likewise, Jesus spent many words defining his principle and unique vocation that of being the Good Shepherd sent by his heavenly Father. This vocation underpinned all Jesus’ activity on earth as God-made-Man:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” (John 10:14)
By way of highlighting the difference, Jesus also defined a false shepherd:
“The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, the hired man abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” (John 10:12-13)
Jesus never lost an opportunity to try and win back the Jewish priests and Pharisees from their flawed ministry among his chosen people: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside you are full of dead men’s bones and every impurity.” (Matt 23:27) Jesus used words in the same way that an artisan uses a blowtorch to strip back corruption that is disfiguring the purity of an article. The process is not without pain but the result is indeed beautiful to behold.
Amos’ home base was Tekoa, a small town south of Bethlehem in the then southern kingdom of Judah. He would have shepherded a rugged and hardy breed of sheep especially prized for their wool. As a jobbing shepherd, Amos would have depended upon the owners of flocks to hire him. Amos’ reputation for reliability, courage when faced with thieves or wolves, his skill with lambing ewes, his knowledge of seasonal pastures would have been all important for his livelihood.
Amos would have been an outdoors man, the very opposite of a bureaucrat, with that essential quality, identified by Pope Francis, namely, ‘the smell of the sheep’. He would have been a shepherd of commitment and calibre more than of lineage and privilege.
Despite the Church’s continuing, entrenched, ecclesial bureaucracy, initiated in the days of the converted Emperor Constantine (306-337 AD), God is still calling reliable, courageous, and pastoral shepherds with ‘the smell of the sheep’. Women and men, young and old, healthy and sick, poor and well-to-do, educated and apparently uneducated. The Baptised are ‘jobbers’ not inheritors of position and power. At heart, we are called to be obedient and humbly malleable in the hands of our Father, God. We are to be found among dinner ladies and school caretakers, brain surgeons and cleaning staff, those sleeping rough and law enforcement agents. Our internal disposition, not our job title, is what is important if we are to be truly malleable in the hands of our Creator.
Amos also described himself as a ‘dresser of sycamores’. He had evidently mastered the art of “dressing” (v. 14) the sycamores indigenous to Judah. They produced a small fig-like fruit of poor quality that nevertheless was vital source of food for the poor. He knew how and at what point to pinch the fruit so that it would grow large enough to be worth eating. An outdoorsman and a migrant worker but more importantly a man of evident honesty and faith in God, Amos was God’s choice to preach repentance to the northern kingdom of Israel.
At that time Israel was enjoying, economically and politically, a period of peace and prosperity. Sadly, socially and religiously it was also a time of decadence and of total disregard for God’s Covenantal Commandments. The people ignored the dark war clouds of Assyria on the horizon. It all sounds remarkably contemporary!
Amos’ proclamations were as welcome as hailstones in June. Because his loyalty was to God alone, Amos denounced the sins of all, without respect for rank and privilege, and warned of divine retribution. Amaziah, a politically powerful priest from Beth-el (Amos 7:10–17) was the power behind the throne of King Jeroboam ll. Amaziah forbade Amos to prophesy against Israel and ordered him to leave the territory. Amaziah and his supporters, feared Amos’ championing of the poor and his identifying of the widespread injustices that were then practised. Walter Brueggeman, a widely respected American scholar of the Old Testament, says: “It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Book of Amos. The prophet Amos was the first to articulate the idea of an ethical monotheism; that is, Amos, proclaimed the rule of One God over all peoples, One God who had a moral purpose of justice for the whole world.”
As the Baptised do we consider ourselves sufficiently skilled to be listed as ‘jobbing Christians’, Jesus’ active disciples? Before shying away from such a prospect, take a look at Mark’s Gospel extract for this Sunday (Mark 6:7-13). Jesus is missioning the Twelve two by two. They are still pupils in the school of discipleship and far from graduation. They could take a walking stick, sandals and one tunic but no food, no sack or money. They were to proclaim the need for repentance; they were to exorcise, to heal and to anoint doing all in the Name of Jesus.
The Twelve were beginning their active cooperation with Jesus in his battle with Evil in all its manifestations. Mark, in telling us about this missioning, is pointing out that commitment, service and apostolic witness is possible even where perfect faith and mature understanding are not yet present. The Twelve, at this junction, were far from perfect servants but Jesus, nevertheless, sent them out in His Name.
If we are willing collaborators, Jesus will mission us in the same way confident that the grace of the Holy Spirit will be sufficient for us.
And so today, too, ‘jobbing Christians’ can be found in village halls, care-homes and day-nurseries as well as in biochemical laboratories and on the floor of the world’s Stock Exchanges. As ‘jobbing’ Christians, malleable in the hands of the Lord, we are called to continue our ministry in season and out, welcome or unwelcome. Our malleability in the hands of the Lord is essential and this means, for us, responding positively to God’s call by adopting a life of prayer and communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. St Paul spells this out for the Ephesians – and us - in his second letter (today’s 2nd Reading 1:3-14):
“In love God our Father destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favour of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved.
In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of grace that he lavished upon us.”