Much of Europe and even North America has little on its collective mind (for a change) other than the World Cup finale, pitting underdog England against the formidable Italians. Football (or soccer as it is called in North America) is arguably the world’s favorite sport. One way or another, it provides relief today from the cares and concerns of these troubled times.
Today’s readings have little to do with sport except in regard to the matter of choice. Of call-and-response. And when the tumult of victory and the
heartbreak of defeat have faded, the message of scripture will remain. And should remain.
The first reading is from the Book of Amos, the first of the twelve “minor prophets,” so-called not because their message was slight or their impact negligible, but because their books are brief in comparison to the much longer works of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel.
Amos lived in the southern Kingdom of Judah in the eighth century before the common era. But his ministry took him from the fields of Judah to the northern Kingdom of Israel where the warning he delivered was dire. Focusing on what he saw as sins of injustice, Amos predicted coming disaster, realized thirty years later when the powerful Assyrian armies of Tiglath-Pileser III and Shalmaneser V invaded and conquered the northern Kingdom and deported a large section of the population. Israel would never recover.
The reading recounts an episode in the conflict between Amos and the religious and civil leaders in which we learn what little we know about him – that he had been a shepherd and a “tender of sycomores,” not the sycamore tree we are so familiar with but the “sycamore fig,” which produces an edible fruit. He is called from this simple agrarian life by God to preach repentance to the northern Kingdom. He even denies that he came from a line or school or family of prophets – he has been chosen by God for this perilous task and has chosen to fulfil his call as the bearer of what turns out to be very bad news when his call for repentance is ignored or, worse, resisted.
In the second reading, choice enters again, and provides the heart of the passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He mentions choice three times, the fact of being chosen in Christ – even predestined – “before the world began,” by our hope in Jesus, and to hear and believe the words of the Gospel. God chooses, we respond.
Finally, in the gospel reading, Jesus sends his chosen disciples out on a mission mirroring that of Amos himself, “to preach the need of repentance.” It’s important to recall that when the original term “metanoia” is translated as “repentance,” it’s too easy to confuse what is called for with doing acts of “self-mortification,” as we used to say. Repentance means to change our way of thinking, to have a change of heart, to reform how we live. This is what Amos found so lacking in the northern Kingdom of Israel, a failure that pointed to the coming catastrophe.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to find the same message in Jesus’ preaching itself. Like Amos, he was deeply disturbed by injustice in particular — defrauding workers of their wages, denying widows and orphans the assistance they require, and treating one another with heartlessness and disdain. It is a strong message, but we can choose to do better, and that’s what the prophetic message is always about. For we can do better. Much, much better. By responding in faith to God’s call, we will.