Plumb Line

The Plumb Line: Praying Effectively – THE 918

Amos 7:7-17
Maurice Andrew suggests the idea of Yahweh holding a plumb-line against the people could be referring to dilapidated city walls. However the plumb line might also be a metaphor of assessing the people’s trueness. Are they true, straight and upright in their loyalty to the divine laws and just living?
Amos’ words are not well received and Amaziah tells the king that Amos’ words are too harsh for people to bear and he instructs Amos to desist.
Amos notes that he is not a prophet or a prophet’s son which Andrew says probably means that he is not one of the band of professional prophets that can be ordered around by the priest. He was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. The sycamore was a type of fig tree which was inferior to the figs we know but was very popular with the poor because it had three crops a year. A dresser made an incision in the fruit before they were ripe so that the juice ran out and the rest fermented, giving the fruit a sweet taste.

Luke 10:25-37
The lawyer’s questions are asked in both Mark and Mathew but in Luke the question relates to eternal life and not the greatest commandment and in Luke Jesus has the lawyer answer his own question.
Furthermore, it is only Luke who has the parable, or as Craddock suggests is more correct, the example story of the helpful Samaritan.
Jesus’ society understood neighbours as people of the same family, tribe or nation but this reading challenges that assumption and suggests that those who behave in a neighbourly way are neighbours.

There is a popular image of prophets that suggests that they are people who predict the future. Certainly, when we read about the prophets of the past that seems true. But if their predictions had not come true then history would not have remembered them and certainly not called them prophets.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but that doesn’t help identify contemporary prophets. The definition I like is that prophets are people who say, if you carry on like that, bad things will happen. Those sorts of prophets can be very helpful if they are listened to and in the recent pandemic one at least had pink hair.

But just like the biblical prophets, when scientists, economists and even historians that make unpopular predictions they are not always listened to. So bad things happen.
In spite of obvious worldwide calamities involving fire, flood and unusual weather patterns global warming involves massive changes to manufacturing, agriculture, property speculation and all sorts of other ways people get very rich. So, one reaction to the predictions is to say that that people who get agitated about climate are just wet greenies.
Some organisations even employ scientists to rebut the evidence for global warming in the same way the tobacco industry tried to prove smoking didn’t cause lung cancer.
The battle between good and evil is often an ethical contest between profit and empathy. But the true prophetic task is measure motives against divine standards rather that GDP. Which brings us to Amos’ metaphor of a plumb line.

Amos visualises God holding a plumb line beside a wall and claims God will hold a plumb line against Israel. Our world is now so interconnected that the divine plumb line challenges us all.
A plumb line is a very ancient tool that uses gravity to make sure walls are perfectly upright. If a wall is not plumb the wall could fall down so the metaphor suggests that if society does not line up divinely inspired ethical guidelines, ideals and understanding of justice then that society will also collapse.
The priest in our reading told Amos to go somewhere else and say his hard saying. We have those priests, politicians and industry leaders that tell us that we can’t close boarders or isolate communities. Conspiracy theorists saw freedom as more important than health and told us pandemics don’t exist.
Amos pointed out that he was not a professional prophet. Amos was not a scientist dependant on research grants from corporations with agendas. Amos worked in the agricultural industry; he was a herdsman and a dresser of fig trees, a concerned citizen. Amos stressed that he was not a prophet that the priest, or the king, employed to feed people official propaganda. Amos was not employed by any group or organisation to promote a particular party line. He had no interest in the stadium, the availability of Gib board or banning gang patches.

Amos was speaking from his own experience and his message was that leadership in his community was not measuring up against the standards of a godly nation.

The threat, as Amos explained it, was that injustice opens their nation to conquest because God will not protect unjust leadership. One of the unfortunate realities of a feudal system is, that for the peasants, one overlord is as bad as another. Therefore, Amos could well have understood that a population that is treated unjustly by its leadership is unlikely to rush to the defence of a ruling class that exploits them.
Furthermore, the Hebrew people had a complicated system of laws that we find in Numbers and Leviticus. These laws were understood to be God given and applied to everyone including kings and other members of the ruling class.

These laws were the plumb line that Amos saw God holding to his nation and the point he was making was that, just as gravity can pull down a wall that is out of plumb, so injustice can destroy a nation. Injustice can make a nation vulnerable to external attack. But injustice can also destroy a nation from within.

We have recently seen how well a pandemic spreads when economic interests are put ahead of human suffering. But some time ago I saw a video clip of a multibillionaire who was imploring other mega rich people to take seriously the growing gap between rich and poor. If they didn’t, he suggested the pitchforks would come, as they had in the past.

His allusion was to our recent history of a little over 500 years which witnessed the disastrous peasant revolution at the time of the reformation. That revolution was brutally put down by the ruling class. However, the French Revolution, the American revolution and of course the Russian and Chinese communist revolutions not only resulted in massive loss of life but changed the way people were governed. Those western nations that avoided violence redistributed their wealth and that was the plea from the man in the video. He wasn’t suggesting they simply give money away but played their part in rebuilding a more just economy.

There was agitation for rebellion in Jesus’ time and indeed there was a rebellion put down and the temple destroyed.

However, the gospels show Jesus continually distancing himself from any idea of armed rebellion. The riding of the donkey in the acted parable in the Palm Sunday episode has traditionally been seen as Jesus rejecting the idea of a military messiah.
Instead, Jesus is recorded as continually claiming the kingdom of God is at hand.
In many ways Jesus is the personification of Amos’ plumb line as he seeks justice through love. Jesus promoted an understanding of the total family of all humanity where all people are neighbours. Jesus told stories and parables that offered a way of people caring for each other. The parable we read today sets a new understanding of neighbour that reaches beyond family and tribe.

It certainly moves beyond our understanding of neighbours as the people next door who play their stereo too loud and don’t trim their trees.

In a list of regulations in Leviticus which was a guide to the divine plumb line we find: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)

That indicates that the neighbour to be loved is someone who is seen as ‘your people.’ If you read the rest of chapter nineteen it becomes even clearer that the laws relate to the way people are to treat members of their family or tribe. Verse 17 even gives permission to reprove your neighbour. So you can complain about the stereo and the trees but you don’t bear a grudge because verse 18 prohibits that.
However, there is plenty of space to bear grudges against and even hate people who are considered as other.

Therefore, in the multi-ethnic, multicultural world of the Roman Empire the lawyers question was certainly pertinent. ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:29)

The lawyer knew the law and Jesus complimented him on his legal knowledge. But as a lawyer he could see new complications for a people who were no longer isolated nomads. Are his neighbours still just family, tribe or even those of the same ethnicity? What about Romans, some of whom were supportive of his religious practises and even keen to join if the temple rules were more inclusive.
Then there were the Samaritans, descended from those left behind during the Babylonian exile that had intermarried with other peoples and established their own worship site. They were people who had objected to the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. So they probably wouldn’t want a stadium, and cycleways hadn’t been invented.

They lived nearby but after such behaviour they surely could not be considered to be neighbours.
And yet it was a Samaritan in the story that exhibited the qualities that define a neighbour. That would have been a shock to Jesus’ audience. More importantly like all Jesus’ parables the story contains multiple challenges for a diverse audience.

There are ethical questions about priorities as the priest and the Levite pass by. People have pointed out that the man was near death and if in fact he was dead that would render the priest and the Levite unclean and unable to perform their temple function without being cleansed through offering a sacrifice at the temple.

As the man was stripped, he had no tribal identification and therefore he could not be identified as having any ‘neighbour’ obligations. The story makes a good ethical case study as we ask questions about the choices a minister might make when he sees a drunk fall off a bicycle when he is rushing to take a funeral service.

What if the drunk is a teenage girl and a man tries to help her only to be accused of sexually assaulting her. The potential to expand issues from the parable of ‘The Good Samaritan’ are probably endless. But what we will settle for this morning is the realisation that being a neighbour is not about proximity or relationship but about behaviour.

The command the lawyer affirmed and questioned was to love your neighbour as yourself. Therefore, a literary equation suggests that anybody who we love as ourselves is a neighbour. The parable tells us anyone who loves us is a neighbour to us and to be a neighbour requires loving action not just relationship or geography.

This parable is a plumb line of neighbourliness, a divine measure of lovingkindness that allows us to claim a place in the family of all humanity.

The parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates that being a neighbour is about behaviour, not genetics or geography. The divine measure of lovingkindness and justice calls each of us to be neighbour to all people.

We are not just part of this neighbourhood because we are a church in this community.
We become neighbours through our unconditional lovingkindness to all and any of those in the community around us.

Rev Hugh Perry, 10 July 2022