Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom." Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'"
I will hear what God proclaims;
the Lord—for he proclaims peace.
Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him,
glory dwelling in our land. (R./)
Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven. (R./)
The Lord himself will give his benefits;
our land shall yield its increase.
Justice shall walk before him,
and prepare the way of his steps. (R./)
(or shorter version: Ephesians 1:3-10, omitting the text in italics)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.
Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Sometimes it feels like a cultural loss to our young generation that it has been more or less cut adrift from the literature of Greece and Rome that marked so much of western civilisation. At a time long past when the only education available to Irish Catholics was provided by the hedge schools, an Irish poet, Eoghan Rua Ó Sú illeabháin, could stud his poetry with references from Greek and Roman literature. Among the outstanding literary works of Europe, written by its first great poet, Homer, was the Iliad, about the siege of Troy by the Greeks. It tells how Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, was granted by the god Apollo the gift of being able to foretell events which were sure to come. But because she had offended him, Apollo decreed also that nobody would believe her predictions. The more urgently she warned against future disasters, the more her prophecies were ignored by her people. They were not prepared to accept that their behaviour, their actions, could in any way have tragic consequences.
The Cassandra story may be a legend, but its rather like the reactions of the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the warnings of the prophet Amos, in today's first reading. It was a time in the history of the Northern Kingdom when there was a superabundance of court prophets, and without offence to our national advisers, one might refer to them as the spin-doctors of that age. They were kept and paid for by the king, and their task was to put before the people, as being the will of God, what really were the secret ambitions and policies of the king himself. Amos refused to be one of these professional prophets, and in turn they banded against him and told him to go home to his own countrymen in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. "Go away," they said, "we want no more of your style of prophesying." Indeed it was Amos alone, who had been given an authentic message by God for the people.
He tried to get them to change, especially in the area of social justice. And it was also Amos who saw that while, outwardly, Israel seemed thriving and healthy, inwardly, it was stricken with a malignant cancer. For not only was it guilty of social injustices, it was also reneging on its call to be in a special way God's people. There would be no more special privileges for Israel, but only disaster. He delivered this warning from God, "Behold the eyes of the Lord God are upon this sinful kingdom, and I will wipe it off the face of the earth." God scorned those who tried to bribe him by burning incense in the shrine at Bethel one day in the week, while on the other six days defrauding the poverty-stricken of the nation. But like the warnings of Cassandra, Amos" words fell on deaf ears. Much of his message could be applied to our own age, for he criticised the inequalities amongst the people of that era of so much prosperity, the luxurious dwellings and life-style of the wealthy, their selfish and greedy expoitation of the poor, their lack of concern for justice in the community, the way in which the courts were used to evade the law and perpetuate abuses.
This people displayed all the outward trappings of religion, but in their hearts there was no place for God. God had sent them warnings through his prophets, but he did not force them to comply with his demands. And so it was that Israel slithered down the slope to its own destruction by the Assyrians, never again to attain the status of an independent kingdom. We see all this re-enacted in the person of Christ and his warnings also. But in Christ's time it was not wealth which was the obstacle, but rather a narrow-minded nationalism, which within a generation later would lead to the final destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple itself. In the light of this we might try and see what is the predominant failing of our own lives, our own society. Is it the greed which confronted the prophet Amos so long ago?
Jesus warns his missionaries that people will refuse to listen to them, just as he himself had been ignored; but their message should not be forced on the people. Indeed an odd thing about Jesus' discourses to the Twelve is that he never tells them exactly what to say to people; rather he tells them the kind of lives they should lead. They must give witness to their faith by what they do, so by their example leading others to change too, to accept freely the kingdom of God.
He pitied the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Today we see how people become frightened, shattered, lost, all because of the way society is organised, because of their disenchantment with declining standards of behaviour. Secularists, industrialists, trade unionists and others, indeed to a certain extent all of us, quite often pursue a policy of living-for ourselves, of taking all that we can from our environment without thought for the less favoured or for future generations. People are striving, if sometimes unwittingly, for the maximum return for their own efforts, while regardless of the cost to others. If we follow these selfish trends in unthinking fashion, the tragedy is that life will cease to have meaning; there will be no genuine goal to aim at that will beget a feeling of self-fulfilment.
A modern philosopher has put it this way: "Humanity's sickness is that it has nothing to believe in ..., people cannot live without a sense of significance." Humans can never be satisfied if they are regarded merely as economic factors, or cogs in a giant industrial wheel. Let us, for our part, consider this day that people have a spiritual side to them also, and that apart from their material aspirations, they seek, like St Augustine did for twenty years, to acquire spiritual fulfilment as well. Christ, as we see in the gospel, was above all the man for others. He emptied himself of his divine glory and became the servant of the servants of God. But of course, as St Augustine said, "God who made us without our consent, will not save us without our consent." We must be of one mind with him. Furthermore, our consent must not be mere words; it must be accompanied by actions. "My mother and my brothers," Christ told the people, "are those who hear the word of God, and put it into practice" (Lk 8:21).
It is certain that by trying to do this we can become an influence for good in the community of which we are part. Somebody has said that it is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness. If Christianity could but capture once again the idea of service, that Christ gave us, it would restore once more the meaning of life, and the significance for others of the work we find ourselves doing.
July and August are traditionally the months when people take holidays. For most of us, a holiday involves a going, a journey of some kind. An important part of a holiday is leaving the familiar, the place where we usually live and work, and heading off to a different kind of place. There is always something exciting about setting out on such a journey. There are other journeys in life that are not of our choosing in quite that way. These are journeys we make because, at some level, we feel we must make them. Something within us moves us to certain path, to head out in a certain direction. Even though we sense the journey may be difficult, and we may have all kinds of hesitations and reservations about it, nonetheless, we know we have to set out on this path, if we are to be true to ourselves. Yes, we choose to make such a journey, but it is a choice in response to what seems like a call from beyond ourselves or from deep within ourselves.
Such a journey is put before us in today's first reading. Amos, according to himself, was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees in the southern kingdom of Judah. Yet, at a certain moment in his life, he felt under compulsion to make a difficult journey into the Northern kingdom of Israel in order to preach the word of God there. It was a most unlikely journey for the likes of Amos to make, and Amos was well aware that it would be no holiday. Yet, he also knew that this was a journey he simply had to make. He spoke of this compulsion in terms of God's call: 'The Lord took me from herding the flock and said "Go".' Amos went because he had a strong sense that he was being sent. In a similar way, in the gospel, the disciples set out on a journey because they are sent on that journey by Jesus. They set out freely, but in response to a call, a sending.
The experience of Amos and the disciples can be our experience too, setting out on a journey not completely of our choosing. The second reading suggests the mystery of God's purpose for our lives. It says that God wants us to live in a certain way, to live our life's journey as Jesus did. Although we often make all kinds of journeys of our own choosing, whether holidays or business or other trips, there is sense in which we try to allow our God to guide us to take certain paths and to avoid others, moving us in one direction rather than another. Although God has chosen this journey for us -- 'before the world was made', according to St Paul -- God wants us to also choose this journey for ourselves, and waits for us to do so. This is not a choice we make once and for all; it is one we are constantly remaking. All our lives we can keep on choosing to surrender to God's purpose for us; we keep setting out on the journey God is calling us to take; we keep inviting God to have his way in our lives, saying with Mary, 'Let it be to me according to your word.'
If we keep choosing the journey that God has chosen for us in Christ, responding to God's call, this will impact on the many smaller journeys we take in life. It will influence our holidays for example. We will choose to holiday in ways that are genuinely recreational, that help re-create the image of God's Son in us. We will relax in ways that are life-giving for ourselves and for others, in ways that help us to become more fully the person God wants us to be.
Periodically, our newspapers publish a list of wills. The name and occupation of the deceased is followed by a figure denoting the value of his or her estate. In Ireland, an editor may highlight any priest who figures in the upper bracket, to headline the piece. Scarcely the epitaph Christ would have wished for one of his disciples! For more than a century, priests had a dominant - even domineering - position in Irish society. As a result, they have come in for a fair share of criticism in literature and the media. In this, James Joyce had predecessors as well as followers. But traditionally, the people were more indulgent towards the short-comings of their pastors. Those who fell victim to the demon drink were more pitied than censored. Those who succumbed to the charms of the fairer sex were more gossiped about than condemned. The harshest criticism was reserved for the money-grasping priest. In this, the ordinary gut-reaction of the people, their sensus fidelium, mirrors accurately the Gospel priorities.
Poverty, in the modern world, has almost become a dirty word. We are bombarded almost daily by the media with harrowing accounts of grinding poverty in the Third World. For over a decade, stories of the famine in Ethiopia and the Sudan have reached news saturation-point several times, forcing editors to curtail or withhold coverage for fixed periods. Following that, the Eastern Bloc has drawn media attention, with their lengthening food-queues and empty shelves. The First World too has its poverty stories, with statistics showing the growing numbers living below the poverty line in the "rich man's club." No great city in the Western world would be complete without its poverty belt where people in the low- or no-income sector are confined within their poverty trap. The resulting plague of crime and drugs has obliged governments, in fluctuating bouts of enthusiasm, to declare war on poverty. Poverty, like disease, must be eradicated.
Small wonder if the virtue of poverty has become tarnished with the same brush. Unlike our ancestors, we are not given to making distinctions. In the popular mind, the virtue stands indicted like its demographic namesake. Even in economic terms, this is little short of disastrous. The reality will continue to ravage the Third World, as long as the First World fails to practise the virtue. They will remain poor, as long as we fail to share our largesse with them. In certain cases the situation is even worse. Recently, the story broke of an Italian shipping company dumping its cargo of dangerous toxic waste in an underdeveloped African state. Having plundered that continent for centuries to raise our standard of living, we now have the gall to fill its empty belly with our waste.
If the Christian West wishes to continue to preach the gospel in Africa and elsewhere, it badly needs to give a more authentic witness to it. If we wish to establish the kingdom of God on earth, we should remember that Christ began its charter with the words: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." When he called his disciples, he made only one demand: That they leave everything to follow him. The only one who refused his call, the rich young man, did so because "he had many possessions." As he was sending them out to preach, Jesus told them: "Take nothing with you." So any priest who leaves behind as the fruit of his labours a tidy nest egg, has miserably ignored his Master's direction on this point.