The Culture of Comfort in Jerusalem
Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory
And stretch themselves upon their couches.
And eat lambs from the flock
And calves from the stall
Who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp….
But are not grieved for Joseph.
They shall now be the first to go into exile.
Amos was a Judean, a reformer of the prophetic vocation, rejecting any official status in favor of his immediate call by God, who prophesied in Samaria from BC760 to 750. We know that Amos’s prophecy was fulfilled, first, in 722, when Shalmaneser V destroyed Samaria, the northern kingdom erected by Jereboam in 922, after the death of his father Solomon. The prophet rebuked failure to grieve over Samaria, a region eponymously called Joseph because it had been given to the tribe of Joseph when Israel entered Canaan. The tribe of Joseph was the most important in Samaria, its terrain the most fruitful: “Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall” (Genesis 40:22).
The prophecy of exile would be fulfilled for Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom, in 589, when the army of Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem and took away the men of valor, the craftsmen, and every one fit for war (II Kings 24:9-17). Nebuchadnezzar installed a puppet regime of Zedekiah, who rebelled against both God and the Babylonian king so that after eleven years the city was again invaded and the rest of its people deported.
In the text from Amos the mediation between the description of city life among the wealthy in Jerusalem and captivity is the sentence: “They did not grieve for Joseph.” And the conclusion: therefore they shall go way into exile. The witness is that God has nothing against “bowls of wine,” music, and leisure save the power these have to bind the soul first to one’s own pleasures and, second, to alienate one from a rightful share in the life of common humanity. The prophet is eloquent on the dangers of a devotedly commercial society in which buying and selling displaces the worship of God. And in this text the prophet condemns the city because its inhabitants did not grieve, for themselves and their fellow citizens. Amos does not condemn Israel for abandoning God but for being so much engaged in the good life that they could see neither themselves nor their neighbors. They did not grieve for the fall of Jacob.
The Gospel takes up this theme of the moral devastation that follows upon blindness to those who are at one’s door. The story of the rich man dressed in purple and feasting daily and the sore-covered beggar who lies at his door is famous, but perhaps it is too little noticed that what the rich man has done is nothing. He is not a miser or covetous or unjust. He is simply blind to what is happening at his door, and as a result his destiny is torment in the nether world. The failure of the rich man is cast as a failure of charity, but there had been another failure before this failure, the failure to acknowledge that Lazarus is there, at his door.
The second great commandment commands good works. But one might have fed Lazarus and missed the point at least in part. Saint Paul’s reminder that if one gives all one’s goods to the poor but lacks charity his action is empty is a gloss on “love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love him as a person with whom you share what is perhaps the most precious possession: a common human nature, with all its aspirations, its courage and its faults, its loves and its successes, its hungers of many kinds, the most obvious of which is the hunger from which Lazarus suffered.
Just as the culture of comfort in Samaria and Judea blinded its citizens to the larger moral world, the culture of comfort in which the well-off of our civilization swim alienates from what is happening around us and especially for the neighbor who lies at the door. We have pretty well succeeded in creating a world in which we need never meet him. Not to speak of commendable forays into the regions of the ‘underprivileged,’ last year fewer than half of Americans spent any time, that’s any, with their geographical neighbors. First came the destruction of the household, with its more-than-two children, with those who kept the fires going, cooked and cleaned and mowed and swept, whom one could not and would not wish to avoid. On the heels of that loss came the reorganization of the city to suppress mixed use neighborhoods and encourage the creation of economically homogeneous areas.
Technology is often blamed as the cause of cultural desolation: the industrial revolution caused us to leave the farm for the city, factories lured into industrial labor those who had inhabited the household, and children were no longer an asset. Artificial birth control appeared. Voila: the nuclear family, in a house fit for only one generation, with the product increasingly the displaced person. All done by technology.
But as is always the case with technology, the driver is something deeper than the mere technological possibility. The pattern of culture can be seen in the drive toward independence; from God, from authority, from labor, from engagement with the earth, from engagement with other persons in a way that would involve that sympathy inherent in loving one’s neighbor as oneself; toward freedom from tradition, and finally toward freedom from reality, from nature itself.
Call it Godlessness. Call it secularism. It tends to the ruin of personal and political life wherever it occurs. It is Satanic, for it was Satan whose chose not to obey but to go it alone. Thus the compelling image in C. S. Lewis’s Great Divorce, in which the company of the damned perpetually move further and further away from their neighbors. Wherever and at whatever scale it occurs, the relation between the culture of comfort and this willed loneliness is symbiotic. Dedication to comfort creates a situation in which it is difficult to grieve over Joseph or to see the beggar on the porch.