Justice Like Waters

by David Baer, November 12, 2017

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Text: Amos 1:1-2,5:14-15,21-24

“It’s not fair!” We’ve all used those words at one time or another. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably had to mediate major disputes among about whose turn it was to use a toy or sit in a favorite chair. You’d often be surprised what sophisticated ethical codes kids can come up with over what seem like small things, and you’d also be surprised at how their intuitions about what’s fair might make sense, even if they’re different from yours. One raging argument over fairness involved a preschooler who thought it meant you take turns based on what chair you occupy, instead of basing it on who gets to pick their chair first. So I can tell you from experience, we’re wired for this at a deep, deep level! And while what fairness looks like is different, the idea that we should work toward fairness crosses languages and cultures. Our fourth-grade French exchange student taught my family to say, “Pas juste!” But it’s not just kids… Adults are also quick to take action in the face of perceived injustice. We’re all sensitive to what’s fair and what’s not. “Life isn’t fair,” someone may say, but even those words are tinged with a hint of regret that somehow life ought to be fair, that if we were in charge, things would be different. If you violate someone’s innate sense of justice, you’re going to hear the words, “It’s not fair!”

This fall we’ve been reading of the Bible as one continuous story of God’s relationship with the earth and with God’s people. For the next six weeks we’re going to be reading from the prophets, those people that God chooses to be spokespersons, to deliver promises and warnings to God’s people. And with the prophet Amos, whose words we heard today, what you get is mostly warnings. Justice, fairness, tending to the poor and the stranger—these things, Amos says, are so basic to our relationship with God that if we neglect them all our worship, all our offerings, all our devotion becomes offensive to God and puts us in danger.

Now, Amos has no formal training in prophecy. At one point when someone challenges him, he says he’s a simple shepherd and dresser of sycamore figs, the food of poor subsistence farmers. Amos was active during a period when God’s people, the special family that God chose to bless, were divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. Amos comes from Judah, but the messages he delivers are for the kingdom of Israel. At the time, Israel was a cosmopolitan kingdom, with access to Mediterranean trade. Amos accused Israel’s wealthy landowners of enriching themselves at the expense of the poor, by using false weights and measures, by bribing witnesses in legal proceedings, and by running roughshod over the sacred laws that were intended to protect the poor. (For example, if you take someone’s only cloak as security for a loan, you have to give it back to them every night so that they don’t freeze; cf. Amos 2:8, Exodus 22:26-27, Deut. 24:12-13.)

So, when Amos begins his prophetic sermon, he says, “The Lord roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem”—you need to understand that these are places in the southern kingdom. When he says, “the top of Carmel dries up”—he’s referring to a mountain in the north. Amos is a poor southerner delivering God’s warning to wealthy northerners. He’s speaking as an outsider, in other words. And the warning he brings to them is this: if you don’t shape up, if you don’t knock off cheating and abusing the poor and corrupting the justice system to favor the rich, God is going to have your whole kingdom destroyed.

Now, the leading citizens of Israel would have been baffled by these words. Piety and religious practice were extremely important to them. The last thing they could have imagined was that they could have a problem with God. They had built special sanctuaries at the northern and southern ends of the kingdom, in Dan and Bethel, and they made the ritual offerings required by the Teaching of the prophet Moses, and they observed all the required festivals to the letter. (The sacrificial offerings they made were essentially like a barbecue, where the smell of the cooked meat was meant to be pleasing to God.) So they would have been confused. We’re good with God! they would have answered Amos. What possible complaint could God have against us? Look at all we’re doing for God! How can you say God has it in for us?

“I hate, I despise your festivals,” says God, according to Amos. “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies”—literally it says, “I do not inhale them.” God’s not showing up to the barbecue! The festive songs and hymns the people sing sound like so much noise to God, and God says, “Take them away!” If God doesn’t want to be honored in this way, if God rejects these outward signs of devotion, then what does God want? “Let justice roll down like waters,” God says, “and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” It’s a beautiful poetic image, especially in a region where water is such a scarce but necessary resource for life. But it’s an extraordinary claim. In the absence of justice and righteousness, religion becomes offensive to God. Only a people who honor their obligations to the poor and powerless among them will have their offerings accepted and their prayers heard by God. And that’s because, as we see throughout God’s story, God identifies especially with the weakest and most vulnerable members of the community. There is no way to honor God without protecting and honoring them as well.

This is a difficult text for people of faith in any age. That’s because there is no political program here. There’s no seven-point plan. You can’t say, if we just pass this law, if we just enact this program, then we’ll be all set. The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, who served for many years as pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan, once addressed the words of Amos to a very frustrated Henry Kissinger. Here’s how Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman remembers the conversation:

Kissinger said to him something along these lines: “If you’re so smart, why don’t you tell us what to do in Vietnam.” And Coffin in his usual high-handed way said, “Mr. Secretary, my job is to say to you, ‘Let justice roll down like mighty waters.’ Your job is to get the plumbing in place.”1

So justice isn’t about policies or political programs. It isn’t about which leader or which party is in charge. It’s about outcomes, it’s about whether our attention and care are focused in on the least and the lost. It’s about whether the water of justice is reaching the thirsty and fragile sprouts at the end of the irrigation lines.

It’s not our job, as the church, to design the irrigation system. But it is our job to call out wherever we find parched and forgotten crops. And to do this we need to be in contact with folks who live on the edge. Some of them come to the church door during the week. Some of them stay overnight in the churches in town, when we host the Family Promise Shelter. We’re still looking for two volunteers to sleep over on Thanksgiving weekend, if you’re feeling moved to spend some time with these folks. Some time ago, I stayed overnight at the Allendale Overflow Shelter, I heard one recovering alcoholic encouraging another—a guest encouraging a host, as it turned out. Sometimes, much to our surprise, our own spirits find living water and nourishment, and we receive a gift in a place where we meant to give one.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” Jesus is our source of love and hope, the one who transforms us from the inside out. Out of this place of acceptance, we serve as part of the irrigation system, bringing material and spiritual comfort to our neighbors: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

May God show you the riches of God’s kingdom, and may those blessings give you the courage to be an irrigation system, to be a channel of justice and righteousness today. Amen.


  1. Walter Brueggeman, Like Fire in the Bones: Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah. Fortress Press, 2006. p. 200.