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The Robbing ‘Hood

Idolatry and injustice always go together.


(Read Amos 5:4-15)

A week ago, I was coming home from Midway Airport, and I asked my Lyft driver, “Do you also drive for Uber?” “No,” he said. “They’re bad people.” “Because they don’t pay enough? “Yes—and Lyft people are bad, too. How much you pay for this ride—$60?” $64. “I show you when we get there. I get $21.62.” Wait. Where does the rest go? “To rich people. Rich people! I pay the gas. I pay the tolls. I use my car. I get nothing.”

I gave him a $20 tip to help him out. And when I got home, I did the math. I realized, since it’s after 11pm in Wheaton, there’s no chance he can get another fare. To get back to where he started, will mean he spent a total of two hours, so he’s making $10.81 an hour.

But then you have to subtract his expenses. Round trip from Midway Airport to my house and back: 72 miles. At the current IRS mileage rate of 65.5 cents—the real cost to run his car--means it cost him $47. To earn $21. He’s actually losing $26. Even with my tip of $20, he lost $6. He spent 2 hours at work and lost money. He got further behind.

Obviously, not every run by an Uber or Lyft driver loses them money, but we might ask why this is even possible—especially when Uber, Lyft, and other gig-economy corporations spent over $200 million to promote Proposition 22 in California, which keeps them from having to offer healthcare and benefits to their drivers.

But don’t worry about Uber and Lyft because they had to spend so much on this campaign; Uber’s market cap is $92 billion.

What we increasingly see in America is not a country where it’s the Haves and Have Nots. It’s the Haves and the Kept from Having.

Scott Galloway, professor at NYU, says that since the early ‘70s, the bottom 99% of Americans, which is all of us here, saw our wages go up about 18%. But those few people in the top 1% saw their wages go up 140%.

The rich didn’t just get richer, they got stratospherically richer. In our large companies, CEOs now get paid, on average, 351 times what their workers make. When I was a kid, it was only 21 times. Now it’s 351.

Take whatever you make and multiply by 351. So if you earn, say, $40,000 per year, the CEO is pulling down $14 million. Now you know why people today are talking about “Wealth inequality.”

Galloway asks, “How have the wealthiest Americans entrenched themselves?” For one, they can buy elite education. “At 38 colleges ... there are more students from the top 1% of the US income scale than from the bottom 60%.”

Or try to get our minds around this: “Poor kindergartners with good scores are less likely to graduate from high school or college, than their affluent peers with bad grades ....”

Our tax code also favors the wealthy: The tax for selling stock in a company, which better-off people can do, is lower than the tax on the income of the people who are actually working in that company.

Galloway sums up our era: “Our nation kept winning, but our workers only got to cash in half their chips. The money started going somewhere else.”

Into a nation just like this, the prophet Amos walks, and he says, “God’s got something to say to you.” Amos is a middle-class businessman, managing a sheep-herding operation, and also fig-tree orchards, when God calls him to go to another country, Israel. So he leaves his work behind and crosses the border. And in this new country, he notices three things.

Incredible Wealth and Idolatry

The first thing Amos notices is the incredible wealth. It’s overwhelming. Amos says, in 5:11, “you build beautiful stone houses” and “you plant lush vineyards.” There are lovely courtyards with manicured gardens and hanging banners.

Archaeologists have confirmed that during this time period, about 700 years before Christ, Israel is making a killing selling oil, wine, and horses, to Egypt and Assyria. So the home prices are way up, and the army is strong, protecting it all.

The next thing Amos notices, after the incredible wealth, is the idolatry. In the city of Bethel, there’s a huge temple, and enshrined there is a golden calf. People worship THAT and call IT “the god who brought us out of Egypt.”

But in case that’s not enough to keep people’s interest, they’ve added other gods: Ba’al, the god of storms, clutching his thunderbolts. Asherah, the goddess of fertility. And Anat, the god of war.

And to help everybody worship, there are prostitutes. So Amos stands up and says in verse four and six, “Now this is what the Lord says to the family of Israel: ‘Come back to me and live!’—as if he’s saying, “Remember, I’m the one who actually rescued you from the horrors of being slaves!” “Don’t worship at the pagan altars at Bethel; don’t go to the shrines at Gilgal or Beersheba. … Come back to the Lord and live! Otherwise, he will roar through Israel like a fire, devouring you completely. Your gods in Bethel won’t be able to quench the flames.”

Amos sees that these gods are like counterfeit money. They look good, but there’s a big difference between them and the real God. These counterfeit gods are all about making sure you have a high standard of living, plenty of sex, and success when you go to war. They make you utterly self-centered. They actually affirm and enable you to spend money on yourself—#blessed by Ba’al—and ignore or take advantage of people who have less than you. Is it your fault they’re just not as blessed?

The real God won’t let anyone get by with that. He says very clearly, “Care for the poor. Release people’s debts. Help the widow. Look out for the orphan. Protect the foreigner.” That’s real worship to him. So there’s no use in people bringing him a song, if we’re not caring for the poor.

Amos notices the wealth. The idolatry. The third thing he notices is all the Injustice.


Amos speaks for God in verse 11, “You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent.”

Of the many things we can love God for, one is how passionately he takes the side of the poor and the people who have the cards stacked against them. God cares for the least, the left out, and the locked out.

On a podcast for the Center for Peace and Justice, Jemar Tisby points out that many people think racism is primarily “attitudinal”: white people don’t like Black people. But as Tisby says,

That’s the least of our troubles. What slavery began as was not only a race-based system, but it was chattel slavery in which people were property. Slaveowners maximize their profits by reducing their labor costs to something as close to zero as possible. So slaves could be bought and sold like a horse; or a plow. They could be put in your will and bequeathed to your children. And hundreds of years of that, followed by decades of Jim Crow laws, have left a staggering gap between Black people and white people in this country. For every $1 of wealth a typical white household has, a Black household has 12 cents. Which helps explain why a black mother is 3x more likely to die while giving birth.

Walking hand in hand with this financial injustice, there’s legal injustice, so poor people can’t get any relief. Verse seven says, “You twist justice, making it a bitter pill for the oppressed. You treat the righteous like dirt.” He goes on in verse 10, “How you hate honest judges! How you despise people who tell the truth!” Finally in verse 12, “You oppress good people by taking bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”

In our days, there are various ways poor people don’t get justice. One, they can’t afford to hire a good lawyer, and their public defender may not be very good.

Two, they can’t afford cash bail. With cash bail, a defendant doesn’t have to rot in jail waiting for a trial that may not begin for months. You put down money with the court and remain free—though if you don’t show up for your court date, you lose the money. But if you’re poor, you don’t have the cash for the bail, so you don’t have that option. Which means you sit in jail, for months, meaning, you probably lose your job. Or get evicted from your apartment or lose your home.

Several US states, including Illinois, are limiting or ending cash bail. There are some challenges to work out still, but I think Amos would like the impulse, because he’s saying “Make sure there’s justice—for all. Not just the rich.”

Amos calls out Idolatry, and he calls out injustice. Because in his day, and in ours, idolatry and injustice always go together. Always. If you see idolatry, you’ll find injustice. If you see Injustice, you’ll find Idolatry.


So how do we apply this intense and challenging message? Put on Amos glasses.

As we read Amos, we start to take off our usual American glasses, and we put on Amos glasses. With Amos glasses, we start to see what he sees: We start seeing injustice where before, it may have gone right by us.

Elward Ellis, a campus chaplain at Norfolk State University in Virginia, got a phone call at 2am one morning, from Willie, a black student leader in the campus fellowship group. Willie was in jail. He’d been walking home from an outreach concert, and he stopped at a large outdoor supermarket. He picked up a soda and potato chips, got in the checkout line, and while he was waiting to be checked out, he opened the potato chips and started eating. A cop came over and arrested him. Willie was in the checkout line, with money, but there’s a law called concealment: You can’t eat something till you’ve paid for it.

So the chaplain went to the jail and begged the officers to let it drop. He said, “Look, Everybody does this. And who even knows about this law?” But they wouldn’t budge. So Edward posted bail for Willie and took him home. He was furious. Now this young man would have a record.

The next Sunday, Chaplain Ellis was guest preaching at a church and talked about what happened. A bunch of white moms in the church started talking after the service: “Whenever we’re waiting in line with a hungry child, we all sometimes open a box of crackers!” So these women went to the manager of that open-air market and said, “We can’t believe you’re doing this!”

Soon the regional manager of the market called the chaplain and said, “This has been blown out of proportion. Please accept our apologies.” The store dropped the charges against Willie. And sent him a fruit basket.

These women were wearing Amos glasses, and they spoke out for someone who was suffering injustice. Are you and I willing to put on Amos glasses? They will change what we notice, advocate for, vote for, and give to.

With Amos glasses, we stop looking at the house that’s better than ours, and wonder why we have so little. Instead, we look at the house that’s worse than ours, and ask why we have so much.

With Amos glasses, we look at our giving. As a church, we give each month to support

Peoples Resource Center, Jubilee Village, and World Relief, all of whom serve our neighbors in need. We take up a Good Friday Gift to unite our worship with our care for the poor. We support the Outreach Christmas Store.

As individuals, we can also put on Amos glasses and look over our Venmo transfers. Do we see a heart for people who have less? If you have the money to eat out, tip your server well. If we have the money to hire a cleaning lady, and you need to cancel her coming one week, pay her anyway. Her bills didn’t go away that week just ‘cause you did.

The God who speaks through Amos to care for the poor, will help us do that, and honor us for that. As Amos promises, “Do what is good and run from evil so that you may live! Then the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies will be your helper.”

Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,

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