As a family, we used to love the game “fruit basket upset.” Do you know it? Quite simple, really. All are seated, save one, who shouts the magic phrase and a mad scramble begins as all search for a different seat. Of course, one person misses out, and in turn shouts the phrase while diving for a nearby unoccupied locale. It can be hilarious, if not a little bruising of egos as well as a shin or two. If you cannot picture the scene, well, you just have to be there!
The 8th century BCE Israelite prophet Amos played his own version of this wild game some 2700 years ago, but no raucous laughter, not even a titter, accompanied his version. He sauntered in to the central sanctuary of the northern kingdom of Israel (he was a southern foreigner from Judah), and spied a grand symbol of the wealth and power of the northerners, a full basket of summer fruit, qayits in Hebrew. It was placed on the altar in a place of prominence so that all could see and wonder at its richness and beauty, a living statement of the vast success and plenty of the kingdom. Like our own Easter lilies or our Christmas poinsettias, this fruit basket festooned the high altar at Bethel, proclaiming the wonder and power of the realm.
Unfortunately, when the southern shepherd Amos took in the scene, he was less than impressed with this fruit basket. I picture him standing at the rear of the sanctuary, his eyes sweeping the crowded worship space, his ears intently listening to the strains of the music of harps and drums, the finely wrought and eloquent tones of the high priest, Amaziah, as he thanks YHWH for the abundant harvest, for the many gifts God has bestowed on a grateful and worthy people. In my dramatic scenario Amos thunders the word “end” over and over, the Hebrew qets, a word ironically triggered by the very name of that basket of fruit. As that word echoes throughout the nave, the music stills, and Amaziah stops in mid paragraph. “Your basket of fruit is no sign of your greatness,” screams the enraged prophet. “It is the living symbol of your imminent end!”
He now strides up the aisle, as a furious muttering is heard from many throats, astonished at the effrontery of this stranger who dares to interrupt divine worship with his foolish and impertinent tirade. “The end indeed,” many whisper, until some more courageous souls begin to demand rather more loudly that the man be expelled from this holy place and that his profanation of the temple cease immediately. Amos notes particularly several well-dressed men of business, seated near the back, who rise in special indignation. However, he noted these same men chatting when he first entered the temple, and walked closer to hear what they were discussing in the midst of the service. “When will the Sabbath be over,” one said to his neighbor, “these cursed monthly rituals that get in the way of business, the real engine of this northern economy.” “Exactly,” answered the other. “When will Amaziah bring an end to his interminable sermon in order that we can get back to grain sales, the offering of our wheat? I have rigged my scales just so, so that the weight of the wheat will look greater than it is, thus increasing our profits. In fact, that weight will really be greater, because I have charged my slaves to leave as much of the sweepings of the wheat in the wheat for sale to make the weight heavy, but not so much as to allow the buyer to see what he is really buying” (Amos 8:5-6)! And with that the men of business cackled rather too loudly, causing those in the surrounding pews to shush them reprovingly. Amos gave them a nasty smirk as he strode up the aisle.
“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land! YHWH has sworn by the pride of Jacob, that patriarch you love to invoke in your endless claims of greatness, and has said, ‘I will never forget any of your deeds!’ The land will tremble and all will mourn as the ground heaves and rocks, rising and falling like the great river Nile. Your feasts will become dirges, your hymns lamentations; you will wear sackcloth, your finely coiffed hair will fall out, and you will weep as if your only son had died” (Amos 8:4, 7-10)!
We know nothing of the results of this potent oration. Did the worshippers that day rush to the mourner’s bench, repenting of their evil and vowing to follow the true way of their God? I doubt it. In reality, I know at least this much about the effects of Amos’ memorable words. Some 30 years after his brief prophetic life, northern Israel was utterly destroyed by the mighty Assyrian army and disappeared from the pages of history. The Assyrians deported or murdered all the leaders of the kingdom, planted their own people on the land, and some 500 years later that mixed race of people was known as the Samaritans, remnants of whom still worship on Mt Gerizim in the north of the modern state of Israel.
Thus, by the verdict of history, Amos was a rank failure. We have no record whatever that his words had any palpable effects at all during his own time. And yet, the words still live in the pages of our Bible, and because there remain even now a considerable number of us who find the word of God in these pages, however much we disagree about what we actually mean by that phrase “word of God,” perhaps we ought not consign old Amos to the dustbin just yet. Perhaps we ought to update his particular game of fruit basket upset, and see where it leads.
I have traveled to Guatemala several times over the past ten years, and have never failed to be moved by what I find there in that troubled land. Its rich beauty is always a wonder. Its vast poverty is always deeply troubling, downright appalling. I have said each time I go that there is more concentrated wealth in the Houston Airport than there is in the entire country of Guatemala, and since those two spots are barely two hours apart by plane, something is desperately wrong in the world in which we live. In an international game of fruit basket upset, I imagine that more than a few Guatemalans would rush for the chair of the USA, gladly leaving their Central American seat for another player. There is, however, profound irony here.
In my last trip to the country, a friend and I flew to visit the amazing Mayan site of Tikal in the far northeast of the country. It was eye-popping in so many ways, not the least of which was the amazing size of the site. Only about 15% of the huge city has been even slightly uncovered from its jungle tomb. The structures, numbering more than 3000, cover an area of over six square miles. At its height of influence and power, especially between 600-800CE, the population of the place was upwards of 90,000 people. Trade existed between this pre-Columbian city and Teotihuacan in the valley of Mexico, and bird feathers unique to Central America have been discovered as far north as Mesa Verde in what is now the four corners region of the USA. In short, Tikal was among the most important cities in the world 1200 years ago. While Europe was moving slowly out of a post-Roman dark age, while Russia was a vast feudal society with a few potentates and untold numbers of serfs, while what is now the USA was populated by numerous Native tribes, scattered throughout the large continent, Tikal was the hub of a genuinely advanced civilization, far outstripping any on the earth, save the remarkable cultures of Japan and China.
What does all this teach us? The world’s fruit basket has turned upside down, forcing the once incredible cultures of Central America to become mere appendages to the hegemonic power of the USA and the West.
If Amos is right, God is not pleased with the way we have ordered the world, and a reckoning is coming. I do not at all imply that I know what God is about to do to play God’s game of fruit basket upset. But I do certainly know that we cannot go on like this. When so few have so much, and while so many have so little, the call for justice cannot be stilled. We all must decide just which chair in the game you and I will grab and which chairs can be made available for those who have had no chairs at all with which to play. We Christians pray each day that “God’s kingdom may come.” When it does, God’s fruit basket upset will surely begin.