The Old Testament prophets were a fierce bunch. I first tried to read them when I was in high school, and it seemed like all they did was fuss and fuss. I have come to appreciate the prophets. But my initial impression wasn’t entirely wrong. Prophets do tend to fuss!
Our Old Testament reading for this morning comes from the prophet Amos, one of the fiercest and fussiest of them all. Back when I was first trying to make sense of the prophets, I watched a short video about Amos that identified him as “God’s Angry Man.” That seems about right. What do we do with passages like today’s reading, passages that threaten death and destruction? What can we learn from them, without getting totally depressed?
Our reading starts with a vision of God standing beside a wall and holding a plumb line. In its simplest form, a plumb line is a string with a weight on the bottom that helps you see if a wall is straight or not.
In this vision, God warns Amos that God is “setting a plumb line in the midst of… Israel” to see whether Israel is “plumb,” whether Israel is “straight” or not, whether the people are being faithful to God’s covenant with them.
Since this is Amos, we know the answer: Definitely not. So, Amos announces God’s judgment against a people out of plumb.
The plumb line in this vision is a metaphor for the Old Testament law. The law was the standard for faithful behavior in ancient Israel. If people obeyed the law, they were plumb. If they didn’t, they weren’t.
But the law ultimately turned out to be an unwieldy standard.
In Jesus’ day, the two most important schools of Judaism—we might almost think of them as denominations—were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Both groups opposed Jesus. But they also disagreed with each other about what the law said and how the law applied to ordinary Israelites. As a result, the law was no longer a clear plumb line. Even sincere and pious people couldn’t know for sure how to stay “plumb.”
So, the lawyer in our Gospel reading decided to ask Jesus. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” How should I live as part of God’s covenant community? How can I be plumb in God’s eyes?
Jesus answers by pointing the lawyer to the plumb line that had been the standard as far back as Amos. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
Unexpectedly, because lawyers don’t usually look very good in the New Testament, this lawyer gets it right. He says, love is the heart of the law. Love is the ultimate standard of behavior. Love God, and love neighbor. Love is the plumb line.
He nailed it! Jesus tells the lawyer, “Do this, and you will live.”
But you know how lawyers can be. Lawyers want to get the details right. (I say that as one related to lawyers whom I love!) The lawyer pushes Jesus. I know I need to love my neighbor. But who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love? And, almost as important, who do I not need to worry about?
That’s when Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man is lying injured on the side of the road. A priest passes by. (Priests never look good in the New Testament! They are worse than lawyers.) A Levite, that’s a deacon, also passes by. (Too bad Terry isn’t here!) But a Samaritan stops and helps the man. The Samaritan was the neighbor of the parable.
One lesson is, we should help people lying injured on the side of the road. But the main lesson for our lawyer was, the Samaritan is your neighbor. The Samaritan shows love, and the Samaritan turns out to be the neighbor the lawyer is supposed to love.
The problem was, pious Jews of the first-century, like, it seems, this lawyer, hated the Samaritans. Jesus’ point is clear: loving your neighbor means loving everybody, even, or maybe especially, the people you are inclined to hate.
That kind of love, love of God and love of all our neighbors, is what the lawyer must do to inherit eternal life. That kind of love is the plumb line by which ancient Israel was measured. That kind of love is the plumb line by which our lawyer was measured. And that kind of love is the plumb line by which we are measured, too.
It’s worth taking a minute to let that sink in.
If Amos were alive today, what do you think he would say to us? How do we as a nation do, if we are measured by the plumb line of love?
How about us? Are we plumb? Are we loving God and neighbor like we should be?
I say what is obvious. Loving our neighbor can be challenging.
As it happens, I am in a dispute with one of my neighbors right now. He is trying to take advantage of me. When I called him on it, he responded aggressively.
I wonder, what should I do with this neighbor?
Here’s one option. I could let him take advantage of me. But that doesn’t seem just, particularly because there are other people who have a stake in the dispute. And Jesus certainly stood up to people on occasion.
Another option is to go on the attack. That would feel satisfying, at least in the short run. But I worry about what Amos or Jesus would say about the whole plumb line of love thing if I were to go to war with my neighbor.
There is a third option, but it is really hard. I could push back, but in love.
I’m not likely to feel warm and fuzzy about this man anytime soon. But it is at least possible to put my own interests to the side, to not be driven by my ego or my anger, to seek justice rather than victory, and to aim at ultimate reconciliation if at all possible.
I think about the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, people like Martin Luther King and John Lewis. They campaigned for justice and did not back down, no matter what the cost. King died in pursuit of justice. Lewis got beaten multiple times. But they refused to get violent, no matter how badly they were provoked. Always they tried, and sometimes they succeeded, in loving the people who were physically attacking them.
King, Lewis, and the others didn’t get everything right. But they tried, and they suffered, and to some degree they succeeded. They loved their neighbors, even the Samaritans. They stayed plumb.
My dispute with my neighbor is certainly petty compared to the stakes in the Civil Rights Movement. But I can learn from the saintly courage of some of its leaders. Like them, I can try to love my neighbor, even if and when I resist him.
That is the challenge of our readings. God tells us how to live: in love. Love is what keeps us plumb.
Love is hard in a complicated and fallen world. So, we do our best. We repent when we fail. Always we ask for God’s grace and strength. And every once in a while, we get it right. Thanks be to God.
I invite you to take some time this week to reflect on a particular challenge you are experiencing right now, a situation in which you find it hard to stay loving. Pray about it. And see what God does with you.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan