12And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
There is no sadder text than this in the scripture. There are great cries of anguish. Fearful words of judgment. Frightful events. But these words are sad. Here is the voice of the high priest of Bethel speaking to the prophet Amos, and this holy man, this religious leader, shows himself to be a cynical, impoverished, without any vision of the God who speaks, who calls, who comforts, who challenges, who upbraids, who inspires. For Amaziah, the temple is not God’s temple; it is the king’s sanctuary. It serves a political purpose. It provides nothing but a divine endorsement of the monarchy, God’s support of the power and privileges of existing society. Gone is the word of a God who stands before Pharaoh and opens the Red Sea. Gone is the word of a God who gives land to the landless poor. Gone is the word of a God who defends the widow and the orphan and calls us to justice and faithfulness. All that’s left is religious ritual in support of power.
Amaziah cannot imagine a prophet who is not in it for his own pocket: “earn your bread there, and prophesy” somewhere else. He is a hireling.
Religion as a tool of power – it is one of the things about which God speaks when he commands us not to misuse the name of God.
“Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
“It is the king’s sanctuary.” It is a temple of the monarchy. We know what evils happen when religion is co-opted by power.
But God’s prophet is not silenced by the charge of treason.
14Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son.” I am not a professional prophet hired out to the handsomest table. “I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,” an ordinary person. “And the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” Go preach. Go speak my Word.
The word ‘Israel’ here means the northern kingdom. Amos is from Judah. God has sent him across the border to the sanctuary at Bethel, built upon an ancient holy site to be a rival to the Jerusalem temple. Again the cynicism. A temple of our own. A place to hear what we want to hear. A place that will support Washington and Wall Street and our human religious impulse, not a place where the God of the Exodus speaks to form a faithful people.
Sad. Cyncial. Self-serving. Empty. “Holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” (2 Timothy 3:5 RSV)
Too much of the religion we see in the public square is like this.