I kept your teeth clean
Amos 7 : 10 – 17
Luke 15 : 11 - 31
The Old Testament prophet Amos was an older contemporary of Hosea and Isaiah. He was active from 760–755 BC during the rule of kings Jeroboam II and Uzziah. He came from the southern Kingdom of Judah but preached in the northern Kingdom of Israel. It is often the case that the prophet is not regarded among his own community. Jesus said as much (Luke 4:34). The Christian preacher and missionary also may have to travel in order to freely proclaim the Gospel. Personal baggage is a hindrance that can thus be overcome. Peter Marshall is a good example. He left Scotland undistinguished and became a much valued Chaplain to the Senate of the United States of America.
Amos wrote at a time of comparative peace and prosperity but this was accompanied by neglect of God's laws. He spoke against an increased disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor. His major themes of justice, God's omnipotence, and divine judgement became staples of prophecy. Chapter 4 verse 1 reads ‘Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, 'Bring us some drinks!' Contextually Psalm 22 :12 says ‘Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me’. These are metaphors. The latter use is for strong, fit and well fed men who are difficult to control. The former are the equivalent of ‘fat cows’ in today insulting language. They are comfortably off women with more than enough to eat who demand that their husbands attended to their wants.
Before becoming a prophet, Amos tells us that he was a sheep herder and a sycamore fig farmer. His prior professions and his claim 'I am not a prophet nor a son of a prophet' (7:14) indicate that Amos was not from the school of prophets and so was a true prophet. His declaration is a protest against any suspicion that he was a professional prophet, because the latter discredited themselves by flattering national vanities and ignoring the misdeeds of prominent men. The United Kingdom's current Christian Church leaders have said little or nothing during the Coronavirus crisis. They have not put their heads above the parapet of safety. The have offered no challenge to the circumstances and given no help to those trying to guide us through these difficulties. It is as if God suddenly no longer cares.
Christianity has always required to be refreshed by outsiders, people called to the ministry from other jobs, vocations and circumstances. Many great ministers began as office workers, joiners, electricians, teachers, lawyers, bank officials and civil servants. They brought perspectives and idiosyncracies to their ministries which were interesting. I remember one such man, Andy Smith, a fellow student of mine at Trinity College Glasgow. He had been a joiner in Glasgow but had received and answered the call to ministry in the Church of Scotland. He was a humble man as a student. However when he was ordained to Cumbrae Parish Church, he restyled himself Rev A McLaren Smith. There was a custom for many years in the Church of Scotland for ministers to call themselves by their middle name, an unnecessary, pompous and rather pathetic affectation and Andy the joiner had followed suit.
The context of Amos’ affirmation was his prophetic confrontation with Israel described in chapter 7 verses 10 to 15. ‘Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: “Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words. For this is what Amos is saying: ‘Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.’” Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don’t prophesy any more at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.” Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
Israel was enjoying financial prosperity when Amos preached. The saying 'I have kept your teeth clean' was probably set in the 'prophetic present' – future events spoken of in the present tense. God would so humble prosperous Israel that their clean teeth would not be made 'dirty' by food, because there would be no food to eat in the drought God will send.
The prophet Micah also distinguished true and false prophets. Micah wrote “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they look for the Lord’s support and say, 'Is not the Lord among us? No disaster will come upon us' (3 : 11). Jesus amplified these sentiments according to Matthew 7 : 15 - 20. 'Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them'.
The Coronavirus crisis shows no signs of disappearing. It is likely that hardship will be visited on many more than at present due to enforced unemployment. In England there is the beginning of consternation that Christmas might be cancelled. No family get togethers. No office parties. Fewer tables laden with Christmas food, turkeys, hams, Brussels sprouts, all the trimmings, myriad sweets and puddings. Less feasting. Less drinking. Many unable to afford their usual amount of seasonal luxuries and self-indulgent gifts. For some there may be nothing. In the medium term, one or two years say, continuing unemployment will cause much suffering. Whole families will be affected and there will be changes in work practices for many. Houses will be repossessed. New levels of poverty will appear. Children will suffer longer term disadvantage.
‘I kept your teeth clean’
There is an idea, a suggestion, a route map that has not been mentioned and certainly not tried.
Step One will be to realise that what we have taken for granted as value in personal and social life must change for the better. We do not need to ‘eat, drink and be merry’ to have a fulfilled life. The scientists we hope will provide a vaccination are sober, hard working, dedicated people for whom social pleasures come second to commitment to research. The ‘night time’ economy in great contrast is not admirable. It is the cause and source of much human folly, irresponsibility and damage to physical and mental health. It is not necessary and cannot be marked out as a benchmark of society’s well being. Young people do not need Alzheimer’s inducing loud music or to get stoned and they do not need to face temptations to experiment with various drugs. Neither do we need to consume excessively and endlessly to find fulfilment. The advertising industry while doing good in bringing new products to our attention is also a pernicious influence on us with its falsehoods, exaggerations and dishonest portrayal of what is good for us. We have manufactured a ridiculous way of life and have incurred mountains of debt to finance it.
Step Two is to ask if there is any wisdom available to minister to us, guide us, direct and help us. The answer is ‘Yes’ There is. But our understanding and comprehension of life is not dominated by such wisdom. It is saturated with alternative, bizarre, self-appointed gurus of personal development, relationship counselling, addiction accompaniment, psychological and emotional analysis, weight reducing, fitness aspiration, yoga type meditation techniques and mindfulness advocacy. Indeed, the entire gamut of human self interest expressed by people who are fighting off their own inner demons by trying to help others with similar problems. It seems that everyone is cracking up. It has to be brought out and talked about because people have no other inner resources to enable them to live with and overcome their issues. Royalty is commended for fostering this new openness whereas its younger members are most likely desperately seeking relevance for their roles and are willing to share their own foibles, weaknesses and damaged capacities to do so. Snowflakes and wokes do not have substantial guiding light with which to properly evaluate competing memes, social media froth and viral energies which rise and fall like storms and appear and disappear, damage and depart.
Step Three is to ask if Christianity has anything to say to us today. The answer is positive. The simple response can be stated thus ‘We need to return to the Judaeo-Christian intelligence which formed our identity, society and nation and made it coherent’. This necessitates acceptance of the existence of God. That is not a given in today’s society. It is almost anathema. Maybe however if our teeth are kept clean long enough, we will give theism a try again. But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not a remote and impersonal deity. This is our Maker in relationship to humanity. And so we need to take on board the practice of relating back to our Maker. This can be done at personal, social and national levels. The personal is made possible in and through Jesus Christ. This is the Christian story. This is the authentic Christian testimony. The social is made possible in and by congregations worshipping in churches and by Christians meeting together in home gatherings and in societies dedicated to good works. The national is evident at Remembrance Day Services, at other significant public occasions such as royal marriages and at large scale funeral services in cathedrals and churches. What is missing in Scotland, England and Wales is any reference to Christianity by its political leaders, Nicola Sturgeon, Boris Johnson and Mark Drakeford. Arlene Foster is the exception in Northern Ireland. Nicola Sturgeon is a practising atheist. Boris Johnson seems to be an agnostic. He has not lived a personal Christian life, though there are recent suggestions that he is taking Catholicism into account. Mark Drakeford has nothing to say on behalf of Christianity.
There is no sense of this national emergency turning people to God for help. Church leaders have not been heard inviting the nation to return to God. Yet throughout Judaeo-Christian history existential crises were met with recourse to God. There were national deliverances, some indeed, from plagues. The last major collective recourse to God in this country was during the Second World War. Aged survivors are lauded and much respected for their character and humility and quality of values. But these were fostered largely by Christianity. That is scarcely acknowledged. No connection is made between the parlous state of our lifestyles today and the higher understanding of life possessed by previous generations.
‘I have kept your teeth clean’.
No-one except some devout evangelical Christians wants to say that Coronavirus is God’s punishment for our sins. But this pandemic is coterminous with our abandonment of Christianity as the gold standard of our comprehension of life. We could then without blaming God specifically, still return to God practically by a large scale return to worship as part of our strategy out of this succession of troubles. What good would it do? Such a return would elevate our national purpose into the realm of divine saving and caring activity. It would transform our mentality; it would dispel fear and anxiety; it would give us hope. Christian life is based on prayer. National collective prayer would act as a focal point for endurance and as an impetus to survival. The Christian story emphasises the love of God and most humans respond to love. There could be a large act of repentance but that would be complicated because other influences have been given status equal to Christianity. However this should be no hindrance to calling on God through Jesus Christ. ‘And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve...But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord’. (Joshua 24:15)
There is much data to encourage a return to Christianity. The defeat of Russian communism is the most recent large scale victory of Christianity over its particular enemies. The survival and prosperity of Jews after millennia of persecution is another great tale of redemption. The world’s myriad charitable agencies both overtly and indirectly inspired by Christianity have improved and continue to improve the lives of countless many. Though Christianity is the most persecuted faith expression in the present time, this has not prevented its growth to over 2.3 billion, the largest identifiable social grouping among humanity on earth. Then there is the message. The reconciling love of God, the example of Jesus Christ Himself as a young man overcoming hatred, torture and judicial execution with love, forgiveness, resurrection and eternal life. In the midst of death this message is heart-warming, relevant and redemptive.
The clear expression of what Christianity is and can be generation to generation is found in the New Testament. One of Jesus’ greatest examples of recovering is that of the 'Prodigal Son’. He asked for his inheritance early rather than wait for his father’s death and will. The father indulged his favourite son probably against his better judgement. The son went off to sow his wild oats. Apparently he did this successfully, wining and dining, carousing and living recklessly until the money dried up. It is a tale of folly. A famine came to where he was staying and everyone suffered. Penniless he was now and also alone. Money had bought him only false friendship. He ended up as a swine herd but he was not allowed to eat the pigs’ food for himself though he was so hungry he wanted to do so. Pigs, of course, are unclean animals to Jews. He had reached the lowest point of his life.
I have kept your teeth clean
The young man came to himself and realised that he would survive only if he returned home, sorrowful and repentant to throw himself on his father’s mercy. This he did. Meanwhile, every evening since he had gone away, his father had gone to stand at the farm gate to look down the road hoping against hope that he might see his son returning home. He had always gone to bed to sleep with a sad heart. But one evening as he searched the horizon he saw a life coming towards him. The walk, the shape, the gait – he thought he recognised. He waited until he was sure. It was his son coming home and he ran to him and embraced him with joy. The son expected criticism and punishment. He received the opposite. The father put on a welcome party for him. He said, ‘for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’ (Luke 15:24). From teeth clean with starvation to feast and fun.
Our prodigal nation, our prodigal society, our prodigal selves can begin the journey home to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As St Paul himself experienced and so wrote ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Romans 10:13). We pray that the Coronavirus will be overcome but we also pray that we take the opportunity to restore our Christian Faith. It is an offer of collective healing, reconciliation, good order and peace. Jesus said ‘Be cheerful, I have overcome the world’, And he did. And so can we in him. ‘I can do everything through him who gives me strength’ said St Paul (Philippians 4:13). He was no stranger to hardship. The nations of the United Kingdom were once identified with Christianity, with Jesus Christ, with God the Father. There is no need to suffer without the love of God for us unless it be of our deliberate choice. Since we are wilful and sinful human beings greatly taken with our own ideas, knowledge, skills and personalities, it is hard for us to admit we are in the wrong.
‘I have kept your teeth clean’ maybe needed to bring us to our senses and to lead us to recovery.