The first reading from last Sunday’s Mass was a stunning and sobering analysis of the human tendency to be complacent. It also showed how this complacency is fueled by a series of denials that are listed in a tightly woven tapestry. Here is the passage, followed by some basic analysis.
Thus says the LORD the God of hosts: Woe to the complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, They eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall! Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment. They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils; yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with. (Amos 6:1.4-7).
The fundamental diagnosis is that many are complacent. To be complacent means to feel satisfied with the current state and to be disinclined to try to make things better. It is self-satisfaction accompanied by a lack of awareness of dangers or deficiencies. It is a kind of myopic condition in which one cannot see beyond one’s own situation to recognize the plight of others.
It is like the rich man who could not see beyond his feast to the starving Lazarus at his very door. Perhaps the meats where piled too high or the wine blurred his vision. All of this is a form of denial. Lazarus was still there even if the rich man couldn’t or wouldn’t see him.
And what of us? Is it possible that our possessions block our view as well? Are we possibly lost in the rooms of our 5,000 square foot homes? What does our life amount to? Do we spend most of our time and money pleasing ourselves? Are we rich in what matters to God or just in what pleases us? Are we aware of the sufferings of so many others? Though we cannot help everyone, whom do we help? Does the moral collapse of our country bother us? What are we more upset about, that our children do not go to Mass or that our favorite sports team did not win? What makes us passionate and mournful, that 50 million children have been killed through abortion or that we didn’t get our own way in some matter?
Yes, woe be to the complacent. Woe be to those who life amounts to little more than pleasing themselves and living insular lives among their trinkets. Life has a funny way of closing in on them, for the world they ignore does not get better magically.
Indeed, no form of denial can ultimately last. The text announces woe because it does come eventually to the complacent; the ignored problems of others overflow into their insular world. Islands have a funny way of eroding when the tides of the sorrow of others rise.
Not only are they described as complacent, but as drowsy. They recline on couches and beds. They sleep through storms the way Jonah slept through the storm he had caused; the pagan sailors eventually had to rouse our Jewish prophet Jonah to “call on his God.”
Catholics today prefer to sleep though the ruinous storms in our culture. This, too, is denial. To be drowsy is to be sleepy and unware. All throughout our culture there is confusion, deception, and moral darkness. Many have fallen away from the faith and are in error and mortal sin.
Yet for most Catholics and most parishes it is “business as usual.” Spaghetti dinners, parish picnics, and raffles have their place, but in the midst of a great storm it is unforgiveable that we are not urgently seeking to save souls through clear instruction and unambiguous calls to repentance. Instead of being wide awake ourselves and summoning others to rise from their slumber, too often we resemble a sleeping giant or behave like the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane, who slept while Christ was in agony.
Imagine, the Son of God was about to engage in the most pivotal battle of all human history and the apostles were asleep! Later, at the moment of crucifixion, all but one of them would hide. Things have not changed, my friends. Too many of us are asleep and are uninvolved in the crucial battle for souls.
The text says, They eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall! The frugal and wise stewards of God’s gifts typically did not eat lambs and calves. Lambs were raised to be sheep so that their wool and milk could bless; only when they were older and nearing the end were they slaughtered for meat. Calves, too, were valuable and raised to be beasts of burden and perform other valuable functions; only when they were older and near the end of their useful life were they fattened and taken for meat. In those days, eating the meat of lambs and calves was a sign of waste and usually of decadence. The slaughter of young animals was only considered reasonable for the purpose of sacrifice to God.
Consider the insensitivity of decadence and waste; they are signs of grave excess. Yet this is quite common in our throwaway culture. And while many do strive to donate unneeded items and to recycle what can reasonably be recycled, so much is still wasted.
Consider, too, the root meaning of the word decadence: de (from, apart, or concerning) + cadere (to fall). The word describes how we figuratively trip over our excessive things. All this “stuff” preoccupies us and keep us from seeing beyond our trinkets and preoccupations to the wider world and what is going on. And here, too, is denial of our failure to see as we trip over our excesses.
The text says that they are improvising to the music of the harp. Permit such a text to mean that too often we pipe little tunes for ourselves, we distract ourselves with various distractions. “OK, so the euthanasia bill is being voted on next week. My son is shacked up with his girlfriend. None of my siblings attend Mass. But what’s on TV tonight? I wonder who’s posted on Facebook today?” We have distractions today that the ancients couldn’t have even dreamed of as they partook of their bread, circuses, and gladiatorial contests. All these distractions we have help us to ignore or deny the collapse and ruin around us.
Drinking wine from bowls! The ancient Greeks and Romans consumed food and drink so excessively that they would force themselves to vomit in order to be able to continue consuming. Lots of excess there! But most of our excess today in the realm of food and drink is for the purpose of anesthetizing ourselves.
Sobriety is painful in a sinful and fallen world. If we are sober we might actually know what is going on and feel some more responsibility. Because that is painful we embrace a sort of denial by medicating and tuning out. To be sober is to have a clear mind that is alert to what is going on. But being alert and aware can hurt—I might have to actually care about things, events, and people.
In a little wine there may be truth, but a lot of wine brings an altered reality, and many prefer it. It is part of the picture of complacency that one is tuned out and unware. It is easier to stare into the bottom of a glass than to look into the condition of others and soberly assess what is really going on. Bottoms up!
The “Doll Up”
The text says that they anoint themselves with the best oils; today, we us perfume, cologne, or aftershave. The notion is that to look good is better than to be good; it is just too much trouble to actually be good. The emphasis on appearances is just another way to deny or avoid confronting reality.
All of this leads to the most central denial of all: They are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! Historically this is a reference to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. For a brief time, the Southern Kingdom of Judah did embrace some reforms, having seen that the moral collapse of the North and her failure to heed the calls of the prophets for reform led to her demise. But the reforms were short-lived. Even acknowledging what destruction impenitence can bring, too many just to take to their couches. The clock is ticking toward destruction. “But never mind all that. What’s on TV tonight, and would you please bring me some more wine?”
The fact is, we should be greatly saddened by the moral collapse of our country. Many souls are being lost and hurtful errors are multiplying. The beatitude says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Mat 5:4). Who are those who mourn? They are those who see the awful state of many of God’s people: lost, confused, scattered, hurt, and on a path leading to Hell. Those who mourn are comforted (more literally, strengthened), to work earnestly for the salvation of souls.
Yet too many today do not mourn. Too many are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph. Few indeed will get off their couches to work to save souls and to spread the truth of the Gospel. The denial of the problem by now is too deep; their couches have claimed them.
The text says that the complacent will be the first to be driven into exile when the destructiveness of their ways sets in. Denial will no longer be possible as the couch is swept away in the coming storm. Denial of reality does not make it not exist. Judah, to whom this text was addressed, did collapse in 587 B.C. and the nobles led the parade into exile.
If we will not arise and drive back our enemies—Satan and his minions—if we deny that there is any problem, we will soon discover that reality has a strange way of being stubbornly there. It will either reach us here and now (if we are lucky) or on our judgment day (when repentance is no longer possible).
The Lord has painted a sobering but realistic portrait through Amos. Complacency and denial are very serious evils because of their capacity to lull us into ever deeper sleep. Be not deceived into continued moral slumber.
And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh (Rom 13:11-14).