Amos 3:1-8; 4:11-12
Recently Pope Francis visited the Calabrian region Italy which is the southernmost part of the Italian boot. It is a beautiful region but wracked with poverty (the unemployment rate is over 50 %!) and crime. Tragically, the Mafia holds sway over much of the region, with a chokehold on its economy and fanning government corruption and fostering the drug traffic and other evils. Some people were startled to hear Pope Francis in a public address speak so directly and forcefully against the Mafia, telling the people to say "no" to them and warning the members of the Mafia themselves that they faced excommunication from the Church. A prosecuting attorney who has worked against the Mafia in that region worried that the Pope even put himself at risk in taking such a strong stand against this evil force.
I mention this to put in perspective the powerful passage from the prophet Amos that is our first reading today (see Amos 3:1-8; 4:11-12). It is one of the most vivid condemnations of Israel’s sins in all of the Old Testament. The prophet reminds his people that God favors them and loves them and, for that very reason, is profoundly disturbed by their sins of injustice and abuse of the poor (a constant refrain in Amos). He warns them that God’s punishment will be like the roar of a lion: "the lion roars-who will not be afraid! The Lord God speaks-who will not prophecy!" He reminds them of the punishment that befell Sodom and Gomorrah, corrupt cities burnt by fire. And even though Israel was ultimately rescued ("like a brand plucked from the fire") the people did not turn back to God as they should have. This prophetic oracle ends on an ominous note: "…prepare to meet your God, O Israel"!
The prophet Amos is noted for his fierce response to the corruption of Israel, a corruption expressed in the way the elite of the land take advantage of the poor and treat them with contempt. Amos would not win any prizes for diplomatic language-he speaks directly and vividly about the people’s failures and warns them that such evil has consequences for them. Yet his ultimate purpose is not the condemnation of Israel but to bring it to its senses and urge the people to repent so as to experience God’s forgiveness.
This is where the parallel to the message of Pope Francis holds true. Even as he directly and strongly condemned the evil ways of the Mafia, he reminded the people that God’s forgiveness is always available and ready to help anyone who desires to turn their life around.
In a very different mode but with the same fundamental message, the gospel for today drives this lesson of threat and forgiveness home. In Matthew’s version of the storm at sea (Matt 8:23-27), a violent storm engulfs the disciples while they are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Despite the storm Jesus is asleep in the boat and the terrified disciples wake him up, crying "Lord, save us! We are perishing." But Jesus calms their fears, "Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?" and then "rebukes" the winds and the sea and a calm settles over the turbulent waters. The story closes with the amazed disciples asking each other, "What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?" The readers of the gospel are invited to ask the same question, as they confront the extraordinary compassion and mysterious power of Jesus.
The biblical peoples feared the sea and thought it was the abode of demons; the storms that rose up and could destroy those who ventured into the sea confirmed this for them. Thus this account portrays Jesus as one who has power over evil and the threat of death. In their fear the disciples forget this but nevertheless they do turn to Jesus and ask his help. Several times in his Gospel Matthew portrays the disciples as having "little faith"-that is, they do believe but are also fragile and subject to fear and hesitation as they face the travails of life. The point of this gospel account, like that of Amos’ prophetic preaching, is when we feel overwhelmed by evil in us and around us, we can always turn to God with confidence in his saving mercy.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.