I’ve been haunted for the past three weeks.
I listened to an unabridged CD reading of Franz Kafka’s harrowing novel, The Trial. The tale was an account of an innocent fellow who was arrested, tried, convicted, and killed for a supposed crime, the details of which were never brought to his attention. And the process by which the “system” caused his demise was totally beyond his understanding – though clearly, at the very least, corrupt and unjust.
What makes this novel so especially troubling is that Kafka wrote it in 1915, decades before inarguably the most barbaric and inhumane time in the history of the world.
Little did I know while I was listening to The Trial that God was merely prepping me to confront this week’s Bible texts!
For, you see, in our verses from Prophets, Amos teaches that there is no sin more offensive to God than the unjust treatment of a righteous person, especially through corrupt harm to innocents.
Here Amos clearly has in mind the selling of Joseph into slavery by his brothers. As was true with the brothers, Amos sees that Israel had committed other evils about which God had remained patient. But, for God, injustice toward innocents is what is ultimately intolerable, indeed the last straw which necessitates a Divine response.
What is it about this precise wrongdoing that brings on such extraordinary wrath from God?
As we think about the Joseph in our story (and perhaps the Josef K. in Kafka’s), we sense that the process of acting unjustly to others may begin with something as small as a felt slight. But, very rapidly, as if in the most malignant cancer, it can evolve and spread with amazing destructive power. The damage it finally does can be great, even incalculable. Indeed, at its worst, injustice can destroy worlds.
How does this happen?
In Joseph’s case, we remember that the story begins with his telling dreams to his father and brothers. Though they may have seemed presumptuous, the dreams were true, and, as Amos later suggests, a case of God’s revealing “His secrets to His servants.” Yet, though wisdom would have guided them to understand and benefit from the difficult truths in the dreams, the brothers, in weakness and ego, misjudge what they’re being told.
This misjudgment then leads to jealousy. Jealousy leads to anger. Anger leads to plotting harm. Plotting leads to assault, damage, and victimization of an innocent. Such injustice then hatches the wrongdoers’ desire to kill. And only the fear of being caught in doing so leads to the final injustice of selling a victim into slavery, with the cover-up that he suffered death by a devouring animal.
What a progression! But the downward, accelerating trajectory persists until it produces the most frightening and devastating harm. For Jacob’s family, these wrongs actually bring them down, take them to Egypt, and ultimately lead to their people’s enslavement.
Amos is talking directly about the people of Israel centuries later. But he also is talking about Joseph’s brothers. “They…walk on the head of the poor and they twist the judgment of the humble.” “They recline on pawned garments.”
Amos foresees the punishment of the wrongdoers. “I will encumber you in your place just as a wagon full of sheaves is encumbered…Escape will elude the swift one; the strong one will not muster his strength.”
Jacob’s family, thanks largely to Joseph and Judah, achieves a sort of reconciliation, which is a crucial piece of the narrative, giving great hope for the future and a new and just way of living. Torah’s wisdom teaches us how to break the cycle that leads down the dangerous path from misjudgment to injustice, from bloated ego to destruction.
But a key part of that wisdom comes in this week’s teaching: there’s a heavy price to be paid for the sin of injustice. Those who put Joseph into the pit are like the bird in Amos’s prophecy that itself awaits the snare. The people of Israel who sold the righteous for money tremble ahead of their exile as the shofar is blown.
So it was, too, for the real world oppressors who later aped Josef K’s tormentors in The Trial. So – by our faith – it will be for all who inflict cruel injustice upon the innocent.