In last Sunday’s gospel reading, we heard how Jesus was not welcome to speak God’s word in his own hometown of Capernaum. A long line of prophets came before Jesus, like Amos in that first reading, and experienced the same indifference and violence when they dared to speak God’s word. Likewise, a long line of prophets came after Jesus and fared no better. Perhaps that is why Jesus told them that if they were not welcomed in one place, they were to just shake the dust off their sandals and move on to a more hospitable town. If you speak the truth, it will resonate with those who seek the truth. But if people are not interested in the truth, you do not have to call down bolts of lightning and burn them up, as James and John wanted to do. No wonder they are referred to a “Sons of Thunder.”
A little context might help us understand who Amos was and what he might have to say to us in our context. In Biblical times, the Jews were divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. Jerusalem was the capital of Judah in the south, and the center of worship was the Temple. It is from this southern kingdom where Amos, a herdsman (shepherd) and a dresser of sycamore trees (horticulturalist) heard God’s call. However, God did not call Amos, a southerner, to preach in the south, but to go the north, Israel, and preach there. The northern kingdom did not have the sacred Temple, but they did have a sacred pilgrimage sight called Bethel. The priest in Bethel, Amaziah, was crotchety, surly, crusty, crabby, and cantankerous. (You should thank your lucky stars you have me as your priest and not him!). He did not appreciate Amos, the southerner, coming north and preaching God’s word on turf that did not belong to him. Amaziah, the high priest, told Amos to “stay the blazes home.” He said, “O seer, flee away to the land of Judah (go back to where you came), earn your bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel.” Amos told the crochety priest that he did not come with the credentials nor the pedigree of a prophet. He said, “I am no Prophet, nor a Prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.” I look after sheep and trees. It might seem a little kinky to you, Amaziah, but that’s what I do. Besides, the Lord took me from my flock and said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” I’m here in the north, as a southern boy, not to look for trouble or be a hotshot. I come to bear a message from God. I only want to be faithful to what God is calling me to. That’s it.
In Biblical times, there was an entire class of people designated as prophets. Some were authentic, but some were fake. These were called “cultic” prophets. They were basically hired by the king. If they wanted to keep their jobs and their necks, they told the king what he wanted to hear.
Amos, Jesus, and all the prophets we hear about, in the bible, were not cultic prophets. They were genuinely called by God, and answered to God alone, not the king. They bravely spoke truth to power; they were whistleblowers, you might say. They stuck their necks out, in the name of truth, and most of them paid the price with their lives. Amos takes his calling from God very seriously. He is not a prophet by trade, like the cultic prophets are, so he does not have the freedom to opt in or opt out of God’s calling. This is not his job; this is his vocation.
Jesus is of the same mindset when he said, “I have come down from heaven not to do my own will, but to do the will of him who sent me. This is the will of God who sent me: that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me but that I should raise it up on the last day.” It is like Jesus is working for his Father’s collection agency, where nothing is lost, and nothing is a throwaway.
With Jesus, what was far away is now brought near. What was lost is now found. What was separate is now together. That is probably why one of the things Jesus commissions his apostles to do, as he sends them out two by two, is “cast out demons.” Why cast out demons? The root word of demon means “to throw apart.” Whatever causes something or someone to become less whole is demonic. Demonic or diabolic forces are divisive; they tear apart. Symbolic forces, as opposed to diabolic forces, are the forces that bring thing together, even opposites.
The primary symbol of our faith is the cross, and it always will be. What is Jesus doing with his arms outstretch on the cross? He is holding the whole world together. Everything and everyone that was estranged is now reconciled. In that moment the back of the demonic forces, that divide us, was forever broken. The lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son, the lost daughter are all found, brought home, and rejoiced over.
To cast out demons is to stand against division and promote union, the ultimate union being the union we find in God, the only union worth giving your life for. In that union there is no coercion, no force, no guilt laid upon people, no need to destroy even the enemy with lightning bolts, only a persistent invitation that will not “stay the blazes home” until everyone is finally home.
I end with a quote from Lutheran minister and author, Nadia Bolz-Weber. She writes: “I like to think that when Jesus sent the disciples to cast out demons in his name, he intended them to look with such love upon those who had become fractured that their neglected pieces returned to the center of their being. He intended that the parts that were deemed unlovable by somebody or some institution—the parts abused by those who were supposed to love and protect them—could, in the gaze of such love, reassemble.”
Fr. Phil Mulligan