Whose Authority?

Amaziah was a priest serving in Israel’s version of the National Cathedral. While Judah had Solomon’s Temple, Israel had Beth-El (House of God). And its priest Amaziah was unfortunately a company man.

Things were acceptable for Amaziah when the prophet Amos showed up and denounced Israel’s neighbors, like the residents of Damascus, Tyre and Judah. But then Amos unleashed God’s venom on Israel itself. Apparently the sanctuary had been running smoothly in terms of worship and sacrifice. For God, however, such religious activity, if practiced without transformation of heart and commitment to justice, adds to sins. “I despise your festivals, and take no delight in your solemn festivities.... But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Am 5:21–24). Worship without conversion particularly ignites God’s ire (Is 1:3–17; Mi 6:6–8).

How could a company man like Amaziah endure this critique? Amos is now talking about us! This situation sets the stage for our first reading: “Amaziah, priest of Bethel, said to Amos, ‘Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah…never prophecy in Bethel; for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple’” (6:12–13).

There is a shift in Amaziah’s words. The temple is called House of God, but Amaziah referred to it as the king’s sanctuary and temple (Beth-mamlakah). We should not assume that Amaziah was a corrupt priest. Indeed, the text portrays him as a committed priest, trying to be loyal and faithful. That is why he is outraged. For in challenging the institution and the king, Amos was virtually blaspheming. Conflating God’s voice with the voices of the powerful and elite is typical of someone who is ideologically stuck.

Inbred, conformist thinking is deadly to an institution. A widespread and readily conceded critique of the cabinet dynamics during President George W. Bush’s first term was that one was considered disloyal (and easily replaceable) if one held a position different from the company line. Here truth and the party line became conflated. A patriot was a company man who agreed. Disasters—moral and political—are certain to follow such practice, as was evidenced by the decision to invade Iraq. This was a catastrophe both the Vatican and U.S. bishops correctly saw coming a mile away.

But the same conflations can happen in the church. It can be tempting to suppose a “good Catholic” is one who accepts without question what the authority teaches, since that authority speaks for God. Thus any question or critique is de facto disloyal, not only to the authorities but also to the integrity of the church, indeed to God himself. A chancery official (not in my current diocese) once told me that any violation of any church law or any questioning of any official teaching of the church ipso facto represents bad conscience. This was the spirit of Amaziah speaking, the voice of a stuck, company man.

There is something about the spirit of Amaziah that seeks identity and security in the wrong places. To realize that our ultimate identity is in Christ is to find ourselves submerged in the paschal mystery, to have lost one’s old self and found oneself emerging from the mystery of Christ himself. To really know this is to find ourselves secure only in him.

In the Gospel, Jesus sent out the Twelve two by two into towns in order to extend his ministry. Empowered by Christ, they preached repentance, exorcised unclean spirits and cured the sick. Mark tells us as well, “He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts.” The disciples had to rely on human good will and God’s grace. They traveled light, with hands open rather than closed, trusting in providence and in no other security. Risky business.

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