Several years ago a hip, new image of Jesus rose to popularity among a certain stream of American Christian sub-culture in which I was familiar. The meme went like this: “Jesus is my homeboy.” It showed up on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and even plastic bobble-head dolls. This Jesus had a big, reassuring smile on his face as he gave his faithful homeboys two thumbs-up. If Jesus was your “homeboy”, you never had to worry, never had to fear, because Jesus would always be there, always just a “prayer” away, and he would always have your back.
This was the image that came to mind as I reflected on the situation in which the voice of the Lord reverberated through the voice of Amos. The people of Israel seem to have taken their chosen status for granted; their holiness had become an end in itself and that end was might, prosperity, and pride. They were God’s people – YHWH was their homeboy. According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Amos was different. As a shepherd and “dresser of sycamore trees,” Amos was not a member of Israel’s club of wealthy and powerful. YHWH was not his homeboy – YHWH was a roaring lion who demanded justice and righteousness from all nations. Amos knew the Lord more intimately than his people but, unlike his smug, over-confident peers, he was under no allusion of privileged status: “intimacy… never becomes familiarity. God is the Lord, and the prophets are His [sic] servants.”
Amos was an iconoclast. He shattered the sacred traditions of Israel’s identity on the rock of God’s sovereign freedom and justice because they had become an escape from God’s righteous demands, a source of privileged detachment, and the ground of haughty self-reliance. I like this side of Amos; I too want to destroy the idols of popular American Christian subculture.
It is the compassion of Amos that troubles me the most. He announced a message of doom, but he also appealed to God’s mercy and hoped for Israel’s repentance which would make possible their restoration. Heschel concludes his chapter on Amos by describing “the burden of a prophet”: “compassion for man [sic] and sympathy for God.” Too often, I fail to uphold this burden and live in this tension; I too easily turn my back to my “sinful” brothers and sisters and set myself up as God’s “real” homeboy. It is the witness of Amos the shepherd, the one who is familiar with the task of patient, longsuffering, and loving care among his sheep, who calls me to hold prophetic denouncement together with compassionate, pastoral service.