The temple in Jerusalem was considered the most sacred place in the world by the people of Israel. Jesus himself frequented the temple and called it “my father’s house.” Luke’s Gospel begins its story of Jesus’ life in the temple with the account of the temple priest Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. Later, Mary and Joseph bring their infant son to the temple to be blessed. And later still, at the time of Jesus’ bar-mitzvah, Luke tells the account of the young boy Jesus staying behind in the temple while his parents unaware leave with the caravan to return to Nazareth. When they return to search for him anxiously and at last find him, Jesus replies, “Did you not know I must be in my father’s house?” And in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, the first Christians in Jerusalem go each day to pray in the temple.
All of this is to emphasize how important the temple was both to Jews and Jewish Christians. While for us in modern times, the sacrifice of animals and birds as an act of worship might seem repugnant, that was not so for ancient Israel. As an agrarian people, they knew well the value of the animals that provided them with food and clothing and shelter. The sacrifice of such animals was intended to give back to God the gift first given to them. The external sacrifice of something precious was to be an expression of their interior attitude of praise and thanksgiving to God and a pledge to be attentive to God’s will.
This sets the scene for the powerful reading from Amos that we hear in today’s first reading. Amos describes himself as “no prophet but a herdsman and a trimmer of sycamore trees,” but, nevertheless, God called him to bring a blistering message of justice to Israel. And that is what Amos did. We get a taste of it in our reading for today: “Hate evil and do good,” Amos bluntly proclaims. And even more powerfully, in view of Israel’s reverence for the temple and its worship, the prophet proclaims God’s message that those elaborate liturgies and sacrifices are rejected when not coupled with a life of justice. “I hate, I spurn your feasts, says the Lord, I take no pleasure in your solemnities…Away with your noisy songs!”
Worship must be an expression of one’s heart. And thus, God exclaims: “If you would offer me burnt offerings, then let justice surge like water and goodness like an unfailing stream.” Jesus, too, called for justice and healing (as in the healing of the Gadarene in today’s gospel account from Matthew). In one of the most dramatic scenes in all four gospels, Jesus disrupts the temple liturgy in calling for repentance and renewal.
I think of all this in the light of the crisis facing our country, not only the threat of the pandemic but also the anguish of coming to grips with racism and a lack of justice for the most vulnerable in our society. A constant refrain of the Scriptures and a motif at the heart of our Christian faith, is the call to justice, to treating others with respect and care, to being attentive to the poor. The integrity of our worship, too, depends on the renewal of our hearts. The words of Amos, the reluctant prophet of Tekoa, are an invitation to us today as well: “Let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream.”
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.