Biblical Words 
Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37.
The judgment of God can mean the death of a nation, though God’s will is for the compassion of the Good Samaritan.
After some weeks on Elijah and Elisha, the Lectionary selections from the prophets move to Amos and Hosea. These prophets spoke the word of God against Israel about a hundred years after the times of Elijah and Elisha. The words they brought were the judgment of God upon a mercenary and faithless nation.
This Sunday’s Amos reading begins with an announcement of doom on the kingdom of Israel, and specifically on the dynasty of Jehu, now headed by Jehu’s great-grandson, Jeroboam II (reigned over the northern kingdom approximately 786-746 BCE). This announcement of doom is delivered at a major sanctuary of the northern kingdom, Bethel, called “the king’s sanctuary” (verse 13), and was probably delivered at the time of a great festival-assembly at that ancient holy place.
Amos intended to get the attention of masses of people from all over the kingdom. When he began to succeed, the head priest of Bethel, Amaziah, pronounced that “the land is not able to bear all [Amos’s] words” (verse 10, NRSV). After reporting Amos’ treasonable oracles to the king, the royal priest commanded the prophet to return to his provincial town in Judah and never approach the royal sanctuary again (verses 12-13).
So, Amos had delivered God’s condemnation of Israel. If there is a prophet anywhere who is truly a doom prophet, with only words of condemnation and disaster, it is Amos. There is one add-on passage at the end of the scroll that portrays a glorious future for David and the land (Amos 9:11-15), but otherwise the scroll is unrelenting doom for Israel. Amos in his own time, announced, in several powerful speeches, the death of Israel. (We will look more closely at this death announcement next week.)
Two points of enormous importance may be simply stated, without much development.
First, Amos itemizes at length the reasons for God’s condemning Israel to death. The reasons are the repeated and ingrained violations of social justice. Israel will die because they “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2:6). It is a time of prosperity and the well-to-do are engrossed in luxuries, busy denying justice to the less powerful, and ignoring the plight of the truly poor. The existence of a nation is weighed in the divine scales of justice and found wanting. The nation will go.
Second, Amos is the earliest voice in a world-wide development of human spirituality. By insisting that Yahweh, the God of Israel, can cast away this chosen people, the God who spoke through Amos rose above a religious life based on racial, ethnic, and geographical roots.
This, of course, is not Amos’ way of expressing it. He was a man who, in the wilderness of Tekoa, saw visions, heard words, and found himself sent from behind the flock to deliver God’s overwhelming word of justice to Israel (verses 14-15).
But his intensity for justice was driving toward a vaster vision for humankind.
The Psalm reading also has to do with divine judgment.
Psalm 82 is set in the heavenly council of the gods, the standard religious cosmos of Mesopotamian and Canaanite religious institutions and traditions. God the Lord is in fact delivering judgment upon the divine council itself! (Later Jewish and Christian traditions understood these to be angels, or even earthly princes and judges.)
God indicts the lesser divinities, the members of the Cabinet, if you will.
How should they be using their heavenly powers instead?
The word of judgment that Amos delivered to the prosperous in Bethel, God delivers in person to the other mighty powers of the heavenly world, who are understood to influence and direct the affairs of their favorites on earth.
And what is the conclusion of this judgment?
Just as the elect people Israel may be condemned to death on earth, so God the Lord can do without these unreliable heavenly beings.
This psalm virtually announces the death of all heavenly powers except God the Lord. (These powers would, of course, return later as various kinds of angels and those “elemental spirits” to be heard of in this month’s Epistle reading.)
The absolute scale on which heavenly beings also would be weighed was justice and compassion, for the poor and powerless. These, the poor and powerless, are truly the people of God.
As the prophetic readings have shifted to different books, so the Epistle readings for the next four weeks are from a different letter of Paul – or, perhaps, a letter written under Paul’s name.
Colossians is one of the letters that many historical scholars think were not written by the real Paul, the Paul of Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans. For an overview, and my personal conclusion, see the Special Note below on “Letters from the Paul Movement.”
In our reading we have a thanksgiving (verses 3-8) and a report of prayer on behalf of the Colossian community (verses 9-14).
The writer thinks easily in terms of the Pauline faith-love-hope trilogy. Thanks are given for “your faith in Christ Jesus,” for “the love that you have for all the saints,” and for “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (verses 4-5). The hearers are given a sense of being a part of a vast world movement. “Just as [the gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it” (verse 6).
What is prayed for in the present:
That you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will (verse 9);
That you may lead lives worthy of the Lord (Jesus), fully pleasing to him (verse 10);
That you may endure everything with patience (verse 11).
Giving thanks for your (past) salvation:
The letter is addressed to an apocalyptic community, who know they have been separated by an act of God to live as followers of Jesus. As such followers, they will be included in the divine kingdom of Jesus when all the rest of the evil world goes down in the judgment. Their challenge in the present is to maintain their loyalty to Jesus’ teachings and to “endure” what goes along with that.
(If the letter was sent in the period 70-90 CE, the Lycus valley assemblies [churches] would have been in their second generations. The initial enthusiasm may have been cooling off some and they may have been more open to new novelties of faith, as things later in the letter suggest.)
Karen Armstrong has characterized the Axial Age in human history as turning decisively on a heightened sense of compassion in the development of the great religious and wisdom traditions. Here is one of her summary statements of that theme.
The Good Samaritan – the neighbor – was a person who practiced practical compassion.
My Take on Colossians and Ephesians.
My personal experience is this: several sections of Colossians are unusual (if not strange) compared to the main letters, but looking at this letter only I could see it as a letter by Paul.
The problem is the great similarity of Colossians to Ephesians. The thick, lugubrious language of Ephesians 1-3 is so different from the main letters that I cannot conceive them as coming from the person who wrote Romans, even at a later time in Paul’s life. And it is exactly that kind of Ephesian language that appears in several sections of Colossians.
(On Ephesians: The point is the very different style. If you can tolerate the long circular unending sentences [which the English translations break up into several readable sentences], it has a brilliance and excellence of its own. The thought is very powerful -- if it is addressed to the Pauline churches in the 90’s of the Christian era.)
As Ephesians goes, so goes Colossians. One of Paul’s followers with special interest in the three churches of the Lycus valley (a hundred miles east of Ephesus) wrote it, probably between 70 and 90 CE. The author of this letter was confident that he/she could speak in the voice of “Paul,” could dictate to the scribe the spirit of Paul as Paul would have faced very new circumstances among the churches. He/she understood the Colossian community in the second generation of its life and spoke with the fervor that he knew well from his/her long work with Paul.
Colossians is an impressive piece in its own right, but, as we have it, it was not dictated by Paul.