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The Politics of Scripture

Turning a Prosperous Image Upside Down

There is more to the ‘fruit’ image than a mere word play, for a basket of summer fruit is itself a potent symbol with political-theological connotations. This text about the vision of ‘a basket of summer fruit’ is a vision of contestation for the cause of justice.

 1 This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. 2 He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the Lord said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. 3 The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord God; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!” 4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 5 saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, 6 buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” 7 The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. 8 Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? 9 On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. 10 I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day. 11 The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. 12 They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.

Amos 8:1–12 (NRSV)

Though conventionally prophet Amos is considered a ‘minor’ prophet because of the length of his prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, for me, he is one of the most outspoken, poetic and creative prophets who spoke for justice, exposing the unjust exploitation of the poor by the greedy rich people in his context. The text this week is the fourth vision Amos had in the series of five visions, which is about a basket of summer fruit. Caralie Cook observes that there is a poetical wordplay in Hebrew in Amos 8:1-2, for the word for ‘summer fruit’ is qayits and the word for ‘end’ is qets. Through this wordplay, Amos sees the basket of fruit symbolizing the end for Israel.

However, I propose that there is more to the ‘fruit’ image than a mere word play, for a basket of summer fruit is itself a potent symbol with political-theological connotations. This text about the vision of ‘a basket of summer fruit’ (NRSV), ‘a basket of ripe fruit’ (NIV) or ‘a bowl of fresh ripe fruit’ (The Message) is a vision of contestation for the cause of justice. In the image of a basket of summer fruit, I recognise a decolonial public imagery, for Amos clearly sees and names the injustices of his times. He prophesies about a coming famine of hearing God’s word. The vision of a basket of summer fruit signals that God will hold the rich accountable for their deeds (“surely, I will not forget any of their deeds,” verse 7), which include “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (verse 6) and promises that God’s justice will be delivered as an end result.

In this vision, the basket of summer fruit is not an image of prosperity or exceeding harvest, or a justification for the acts of the rich and greedy. Rather it is about a famine of hearing God’s word in that land. A basket of summer fruit serves as a decolonial image, stripping off the coloniality of prosperity associated with a ‘fresh bowl of ripe fruits.’ God directs Amos and his community (and future readers of this text) to recognise a basket of summer fruit as a decolonial political image.

To further elucidate this point, let me draw on the image of a basket of mangoes, which are the summer fruits in my context in India. In my context, a basket of mangoes symbolizes joy and auspiciousness. When they are shared with people it is about wishing them sweetness, fruitfulness and fertility in life. You might be surprised to learn that even mango leaves are adorned for a new house or a wedding house, as a sign of auspiciousness and good luck. It has been the dominant castes who, as rich landowners of mango farms, ascribed the mango as ‘king of fruits’ in India, and proclaimed ‘sacredness’ and ‘auspiciousness’ to mangoes, the summer fruit.

Countries such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who produce the world’s major share of mangoes, have often gifted mangoes to other countries as symbols of friendship, strength, robustness and maturity in bilateral partnerships between countries. A case in point is when the former Prime Minister of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru, attempted ‘mango diplomacy’ by presenting mango saplings as a return gift to the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1955. While mangoes were used as political gifts between countries, they were never used as symbols to contest coloniality or as symbols proclaiming justice or symbols announcing a famine. In contrast, when God showed Amos a basket of summer fruits, God wasn’t upholding the ‘sacredness’ and ‘auspiciousness’ of the summer fruit. Nor was God presenting a basket of summer fruit as a symbol of political diplomacy to Amos’ community. Rather, God showed Amos a basket of summer fruit as an image to contest the oppressive status quo thriving in their society. It critiqued the widening gap between the rich and poor and portended a famine of God’s word.

God’s choice of a basket of summer fruits to show to Amos is in itself a subversive act, a decolonial act, for God picks an image of auspiciousness and fruitfulness, deconstructs it, and directs Amos to prophesy a political theology of justice and famine to Israel in the 8th century BCE, where injustice was thriving.

It is interesting to further note that God speaks through symbols and images that are local, political and public. In the previous visions, God spoke to Amos through an image of locusts (7:1-3), through an image of fire (7:4-6), through an image of a plumb line (7:7-9) and now through a basket of summer fruit (8:1-12). This variety exhibits God’s diverse ways of speaking to communicate God’s prophecy for justice in the public sphere. In picking images of locusts, fire, plumb line and basket of summer fruit, God was relating with Amos’ agrarian community, for they understood these images which were local, mundane and everyday images. From these images, we infer that God uses images of the public sphere that communities can relate to. The sparks of divine justice are ingrained in ordinary public images. There isn’t anything ritualistic or doctrinal with these images, for they are well-known to the public sphere and God’s justice bursts out of these public images.

After showing a basket of summer fruit, God asks Amos what he sees, and Amos replies, “a basket of summer fruit” (8:1-2). Amos wasn’t selective in his seeing, for he could have said merely ‘a basket or many fruits,’ or ‘a bunch of ripe fruits.’ Amos sees what God has shown and replies to God what he has seen. In our world today there is a huge disparity in what we see and what we say. The politics of power dominate in our church and society, allowing people to see what they want to see and share partial things in their seeing, leaving out the holistic seeing of the signs of times today. Amos was courageous to see what God has shown and say what he has seen and allows God’s theo-political imagination to shape his own theo-political and theo-poetical imaginations.

Political theology is not just shaped by arguments and counter-arguments, it takes form and shape through imagination, particularly through political, theological and decolonial imagination. And these imaginations are affected by what we see and what we experience around us in our contexts. The act of ‘seeing’ and ‘non-seeing’ is a political act, for we tend to see what we want to see and ignore what we don’t want to see. When one ‘sees,’ the seen becomes visible and brings the seen to being, whereas ‘non-seeing’ leads to invisibility and exclusion. In Amos’ case, the seen ‘basket of summer fruit’ becomes visible and it comes into being. So, our take-home political challenge from this text is to allow the Spirit to show us the realities around us, so that we see them, we notice them, we discern them and then tell back to God or respond to God on what we have seen with a proactive action. We are called to see like Amos what God wants us to see and not only see what we want to see.  

The sight of a basket of summer fruit leads Amos to prophesy that the time is coming for a famine in their land, a famine not of bread or a thirst of water but of hearing the words of the Lord (verse 11). The harvest of summer fruit represented the end of the annual agrarian cycle in Amos’ time. Again, drawing from the imagery of mangoes in my context, once the harvest of mangoes is finished in summer and when all the mangoes are consumed, one has to wait for the next crop, perhaps till the next summer to taste mangoes again. In other words, Amos is informing his community that the time is coming where the basket of summer fruits will be consumed this season and the time of waiting for next summer when the summer ripened fruit will be gathered into baskets. Such a long gap till next summer is what I think Amos understands as a famine time of hearing God’s word. With injustices in the society ripening and with justice in the society diminishing, the society experiences a famine of hearing the words of God.

As covenanted community, Amos’ community have always been fed by God’s word in all their journeys. With a no-end to the practices of injustices in their community who are giving no heed to the warnings given by God, a basket of God’s words of justice will soon be emptied and they will no longer hear the word of the Lord. Amos therefore says, “they shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; and they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (verse 12).

However hard they search for God’s word, they shall not find it until they repent for their unjust actions and exercise justice in their land. In situations of justice, God’s word flourishes, and in situations of injustice there is a famine of hearing to God’s word. In other words, wherever God’s word flourishes, justice thrives, and wherever justice is practiced, God’s word comes to life and fruition.

God is showing us (the readers of Amos) a basket of summer fruits—a basket of mangoes—and is inviting us to discern the signs of our times, to recognise the growing injustices around us, to contest them and to strive for justice. As a decolonial public imagery, a basket of mangoes offers an ecological challenge to us, to recognise the growing ecological imbalances around us, to discern climate change, and to call out how our earth is being sold out to the human greed for the cost of a pair of sandals and few pennies. A basket of mangoes should provoke us to participate in ecological justice.

As a decolonial public imagery, a basket of mangoes also offers an anti-hunger challenge to us. With the rise of the cost of living, with at least 4 million children in the UK (where I presently live) being pushed into hunger and poverty, we are called to recognise that poverty exists right in our boroughs, we are called to seek an accountability of those who are making political policies and ensure that food justice is administered and hunger is addressed.

The famine of hearing God’s word is already in our midst. With the growing injustices around us, with the gap between the rich and poor ever widening, and with racial, gender, caste discriminations going unabated, there has been a famine of recognizing God’s justice as the gospel of Jesus Christ within the church today. It is very unfortunate that today the vision of a basket of summer fruits is being preached and interpreted as a gospel of prosperity—with no sensitivity to the rising injustices in the world around us. This vision of Amos is a wakeup call for the Christian church, and all people, not to succumb to interpretations of abundance, prosperity, blessing and auspiciousness. Rather, we must stand up for the values of Jesus Christ by contesting the oppressive systems and structures around us and strive towards a just world.

2 thoughts on “Turning a Prosperous Image Upside Down

  1. This gives me goose bumps of wonderful insight….helping me focus afresh on this prophet and the power of the image God provided Amos, asking me to consider its practical application today.Thank you.

  2. Amazing interpretation. The next time I see or eat any fruit it reminds me of the injustice around me. If the society continues not to take heed of Gods voice the it is deemed to fail. We are witnessing the snippets of it and it will not be long to reach the pinnacle unless we turn and tune our ears to Gods voice. Thank you anna for this blog. It is truly eye opening.

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