Ashtrays & the Cosmic Order of the Universe
By Lynn Tatum
Amos 5:14-6:1; Luke 10:25-37
In the mid-seventies I was a behind-the-ears Baylor student in biblical studies. Having an interest in archaeology, I was presented with my first opportunity to travel on my own to the Middle East. Anwar Sadat had just kicked the Russians out of Egypt, and it was just beginning to reopen to Westerners. So I packed my backpack and headed for the tombs of the pharaohs.
One of my most interesting experiences that summer involved an invitation to the hut of a poor peasant family near Maadi, Egypt. Now, if you’ve never experienced Arab hospitality, you’ve never experienced real hospitality. Don’t misunderstand me; there was nothing opulent. Living as peasants, this family dwelt in a mud-walled hovel: no windows-just holes in the walls. The Spartan furniture consisted of pieces of sticks and scrap-wood roped together with jute.
But my mother always taught me that, no matter how humble the abode, you can always find something on which to compliment the host. This was going to be a challenge. I scanned the hovel; and then I saw it: Proudly displayed, they had a translucent ashtray, hand-carved from alabaster. Trying to be the good guest, I began to wax effusive on its delicate charm. I was amazed, so I said, at the elegant simplicity of its craftsmanship.
Much to my horror, the host went over, picked up the alabaster ashtray, handed it to me, and said, “Take it, it is a gift for you.” The finest thing they had in their home! All of a sudden my anthropology classes began echoing in my head. I remembered that you should never compliment an Arab peasant on material possessions. If you do, they will feel obligated to give it away.
My options at this point were strictly limited. I could not refuse it-that would be the same as saying, “Ha! The best you’ve got isn’t good enough for me!” And I couldn’t pay for it. First, I was a student with zero excess cash. (You couldn’t exactly cash a check in Maadi, Egypt drawn on a bank from Waco, Texas.) Second, that would be like saying, “I can buy and sell the best you’ve got.”
So my only option was to give a gift in return. My tattered tennis shoes wouldn’t qualify. Neither would my worn backpack. The only thing I had of value was a gold-plated fountain pen that my mother had given me for graduation. (It was her advice that had gotten me into this predicament, anyway.) So I gave away the pen.
There were embraces and smiles all around. They seemed quite impressed with my generosity. So when the day ended, I left that peasant hut carrying an alabaster ashtray-and I don’t smoke. They had a gold fountain pen-and they were illiterate.
I don’t know what this story says about the cosmic order of the universe, but it must say something. I thought it would make a great sermon illustration, but I couldn’t figure out what it illustrated. Then I was reading through the book of Amos this week, and I understood its significance. This episode actually illustrates a fundamental principle- there is a foundational irrationality about material possessions. What we have is sometimes nothing but a pure, cosmic, accident.
In the eighth century BCE, the prophet Amos was preaching to the wealthy elite of ancient Israel, to people of property, to people of substance, to people of power. The people of Israel had made a fundamental perceptual mistake. They fell into the trap that I fear we all stumble into at one time or another. Those wealthy aristocrats believed that we have what we have because we deserve what we have.
Amos preached during a time of unrivaled prosperity in Israel. The book of Amos is replete with references to ivory couches, luxurious ointments, fine wines, vacation homes, summer palaces. Moreover, archaeological excavations from this era have revealed a stunning array of luxury items: imported fine wares, exquisitely carved furniture, opulent architecture.
The elite of Israel had made a success of themselves. They were prosperous; they were secure; ergo (so they thought), they must be righteous. They looked at their business associates. They looked at their friends. They looked at their social acquaintances. They were all wealthy. They were all comfortable. They were all, as the title of our sermon says, at ease in Zion.
But they had not looked at the poor in the land; they had not looked at the hungry in the streets; they had not looked at the widows whom they had made homeless in order to expand their luxurious estates.
When Amos called the elite of Israel to adhere to Yahweh’s covenant demands, they refused to hear. They refused to believe that a person could be as successful, as prosperous, as wealthy, and as powerful as they were, and still be corrupt and unrighteous. They believed that material gain was a sign of God’s blessing: If you trust God enough, you too can have a three-chariot garage.
But Amos cried out: Woe to those who are at ease with material possessions. Worldly success is no sign of heavenly blessing.
Burger King and the Good Samaritan
Our New Testament text today is the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. Now, I am student of the Old Testament, not the New, but I would argue that this parable is almost always misunderstood. We usually visualize a hypocritical priest and an uncaring Levite callously bypassing this bleeding, wounded victim of crime. I would argue that to properly comprehend this passage you need to understand an important intra-Jewish debate that was raging during New Testament times.
Jews, among which Jesus and his disciples should be counted, were caught up in an intense debate over what it meant to be a Jew, what it meant to be God’s nation. What is the proper calling of God’s covenanted people? Many Jews, like Rabbi Jesus, argued that God’s covenanted people should be a compassionate people-a ministering people-a people concerned about, and reaching out to, others.
Other Jews, with the same dedication, the same fervor, the same level of conviction, felt that God had called the Jews to be a holy, ritually pure, people set apart. As a matter of fact, the term “Pharisee” means “one who is separated out.” The Jews, according to such thinking, were to be a holy nation, separated out, in order to be God’s shining beacon in a corrupt and pagan world.
The priest and the Levite represent this second view. They were, with profound conviction, dedicated to performing the rituals and the sacrifices that God had ordained for the Jewish people. The Levites prepared the sacrifices; the priests actually carried them out.
Imagine, then, the predicament of the priest. Picture it: he comes along and finds a tragic victim bleeding on the side of the road. Unfortunately, this bloodied man, according to Jewish law, would be ritually unclean. If the priest so much as touches this victim of crime-if he so much as touches the blood of this dying man-he would be rendered ritually impure and, therefore, unable to carry out the sacrifices that God had commanded.
The Levite is in the same predicament. He may not touch this victim of crime; if he does, he becomes unclean and the all-important sacrifices cannot be prepared or performed.
I’m convinced that the priest felt terrible about this suffering victim. I’m sure he returned to Jerusalem and gave a big donation to the Victim Assistance Fund of the Red Star of David. I’m sure he began to campaign for more centurions on the beat.
I’m convinced the Levite was equally depressed over his inability to help this mugging victim. The Levite probably returned home and started advocating for stiffer laws, for mandatory dungeon sentences, for three-strikes-and-you’re-crucified laws. Nevertheless, both the priest and the Levite saw their duty to carry out their ritual functions as taking precedence over helping the less fortunate of society.
Some time ago this church’s college group asked me to lead one of their Tuesday night Bible studies. The group met at eight o’clock. I had to work late that evening; it didn’t make much sense to go all the way home and then come back into town.
So sometime after seven o’clock, I headed over to this little gourmet restaurant over on 17th and Speight called Burger King. I went in, grabbed a burger, and sat down to do some last minute preparation for the Bible study.
About ten ’til eight I gathered up my things in order to leave. I looked out in the parking lot and noticed a disheveled, dirty, obviously hungry, old man digging through the trash cans trying to find something to eat.
My wife has often said that you should be cautious about giving money in such circumstances, but always, always give food. Well, I didn’t have time…but, I thought, it shouldn’t delay me more than a minute or two. So I went and ordered a double-burger-happy-combo meals to give to this obviously homeless individual.
The restaurant was busier than usual, and by the time they finally got me my mission-outreach meal, I should have already left for church. To make matters worse, as they handed me the food, I noticed out of the corner of my eye the old man slinking into the restaurant and making a beeline for the toilets.
So I’m late for a Bible study-which I’m supposed to teach; I’ve got a bag of food I don’t need; and there is a hungry man in the Burger King toilet. What do you do in a situation like that? You can’t just walk into a restroom, walk up to a perfect stranger, and say “Hi, I’m Lynn Tatum. I thought we should get to know each other.”
I decided to wait outside. Being a minute or two late wouldn’t be that big of a problem. So I waited-two minutes, four minutes, five minutes. He still didn’t come out. I started monitoring the restroom to see who’s going in and who’s going out. (And that will get you some weird looks.) Eventually, I estimated that he was in there by himself. So I went in to check it out, sort of pretend to wash my hands. Sure enough the stall on the left was closed. But I still didn’t know what to do.
I went back outside. Now I was really late for the Bible study. I honestly considered walking into the bathroom, throwing the bag over the stall, yelling out, “God loves you and so do I,” and running out of the building. I was getting desperate.
Fortunately about that time, he walked out. I rushed over to him, gave him the bag, mumbled something ineloquent like, “Here, I’m not hungry. Eat this.” I then ran out, got into my car, and went to Seventh and James church, in order to teach a Bible study on, as irony would have it, the parable of the Good Samaritan.
So here was an elderly man obviously alone, obviously in need of shelter, obviously in need of friendship. And I had left him alone, without shelter, with barely enough food to last till dawn. I had not even asked his name . . . all so that I would not be late for a solemn assembly, a Bible study on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
I had fallen into a snare as old as Amos. When we place our assemblies, our rituals, our Bible studies, our solemn gatherings above the covenant call of justice and compassion, we need the searing indictment of Amos, “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies….Take away from me the noise of your hymns….But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.” (5:21-24)
Amos cries out: Woe to those who are at ease in Zion while injustice and suffering prevail in the world around us.
The Covenant of God is a Fearsome Thing
Finally, we should take note of the terrible and terrifying insistence of Amos, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion…” period!
The covenant of God is a fearsome thing. “Covenant,” after all, means “a contract, an agreement, a compact.” When we enter into God’s covenant, we are not covenanting to relax. We are not promising to take the easy way out. We are agreeing to submit to the righteous demands of a Holy God.
The covenant community is not to be a cushy retreat from the demands of the world. It should be a boot camp, steeling us for the arduous demands of a jealous God. We sometimes hear so much about God’s love, that we fail to heed God’s call to righteousness, God’s call to holiness, God’s call to service.
Some of my first-year students tell me with disarming naivete, “I just can’t wait for the Lord’s return.” Folks, if the Lord walked bodily into this sanctuary today, I would be the first one to dive for cover: For I have not kept God’s covenant-and neither have you.
Amos 5:18 says, “Why would you desire the day of Yahweh, the day of the Lord? It will be darkness and not light, gloom with no brightness in it.” We need to hear the terrifying warning of Amos: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion.” The covenant community is not-should not- cannot-be a place of rest and comfort. It must be a temporary refuelling shelter, preparing us to confront the arduous task of being God’s people in a godless world.
We should not be at ease in Zion. We should not be at ease with worldly success. We should not be at ease with social injustice. We should not be at ease, period! Amos announces, and God demands, a higher calling for you and me.
If we are to be God’s covenanted people, then we are summoned to strive for more than the material comforts of this world, those material comforts that this world calls “success.” We are called to be pursuers of righteousness and makers of justice. Until the day arrives that we live in a land in which it can truly be said that “justice flows down like water, and righteousness like an everlasting stream,” may we never be at ease in Zion.
We close today with a call to consider the words of Amos, this jagged prophet from a bygone era. The words of Amos summon us to covenant with God and to covenant with each other. We offer an invitation to all that would commit themselves to the pursuit of God’s purpose in this God-needing world. Amos calls upon you to prayerfully consider God’s calling for your life and for the people of God.
Lynn Tatum is a biblical archaeologist. He sometimes dresses up like Indiana Jones to show artifacts and tell stories of his archaeological digs to enthralled groups of children. This sermon was part of a midwinter study Tatum led at on the book of Amos. It was printed in Sacred Seasons, Pentecost/Ordinary Time 2002.