by Father Mike Stubbs
Once, during a conversation about vocations, someone suggested to me that the church should offer higher salaries in order to attract more candidates to the priesthood.
The person noted that the current financial rewards were not competitive when compared to other walks of life. I replied that increasing the salaries paid to priests might indeed attract more men to the priesthood, but for the wrong reasons. If someone is in it for the money, the church could end up in deep trouble.
That is basically the accusation that Amaziah, priest of Bethel, levels against Amos the prophet in Sunday’s first reading, Am 7:12-15: “Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah. There earn your bread by prophesying.” Amaziah is claiming that Amos has gone into the prophesying business in order to earn his bread, and that Amos has left his home of Judah to prophesy in Bethel, where it will be more profitable.
In his defense, Amos replies that he did not choose to be a prophet. Unlike some others, he did not join a group of prophets in order to pursue that profession: “I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets.” Instead, Amos was earning his living by working as a shepherd: “I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.”
But God had other plans for Amos. “The Lord took me from following the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”
This visit by the prophet Amos to the temple at Bethel bears a marked resemblance to the visit by a prophet described in 1 Kgs 13:1-2: “A man of God came from Judah to Bethel by the word of the Lord, while Jeroboam was standing at the altar to offer sacrifice. He cried out against the altar the word of the Lord: ‘O altar, altar, the Lord says, “A child shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, who shall slaughter upon you the priests of the high places who offer sacrifice upon you, and he shall burn human bones upon you.”
Is this the prophet Amos? Or, was Amos joined by other prophets in his criticism of the worship taking place in the temple at Bethel? It is not clear.
In any case, the attack upon Bethel reflects the rivalry between the northern and southern kingdoms. The northern kingdom had set up the temple in Bethel as an alternative to the temple in Jerusalem, which was in the southern kingdom. Jeroboam was king in the northern kingdom, while Josiah eventually came to the throne of the southern kingdom. Politics definitely played a part in this religious conflict between the two sanctuaries of Bethel and Jerusalem.
Politics and economics often enter into religious matters. After all, it is impossible to entirely separate affairs of the world from those of the spirit. But the prophets can help us to distinguish between the two, to see more clearly where to draw the line. Amos was accused of profiteering, of interfering in the internal affairs of the northern kingdom. But his words continue to echo down through the ages, to challenge us about justice and concern for the poor.