True and Right Walls

Amos 7:7-17; Luke 10:25-37

 

The Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.  And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?”

And I said, “A plumb line.”

 

Why the plumb line?  I mean, why didn’t Amos say, “A wall”?  He’s standing there talking to a vision of the Lord who is holding a plumb line in his hand.  But isn’t the wall the object of focus?  Isn’t the reason for holding a plumb line in the first place to measure a thing’s verticality, its trueness, its rightness?

In any event, God is measuring his people Israel here.  And so the wall drops out of focus altogether.  Or does it?  Perhaps it will be good for us to keep this wall in mind as we explore this curious passage regarding this peculiar prophet.

So, God measures up his people Israel using a sort of spiritual plumb line.  And they are declared to be leaning—not true, not upright, lacking integrity.

But this is a time of blessing.  Just take a look around!  Our territory, when you consider the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel together of course, is vaster than ever before.  And there’s such peace as we’ve never known!  Surely—said people like the priest Amaziah and King Jeroboam—surely we are blessed of God!

Not so! said Amos.  We have peace and prosperity now, and, yes, these are from the hand of God, as you say.  But—but—there is gross inequity!  There is huge injustice going on here!

The problem Amos saw was one of social classism—very similar to the story of Robin Hood in fact.  The rich were exploiting the poor and thereby becoming richer themselves.  Sure the priest Amaziah and the kings Jeroboam and Uzziah in Judah felt peace and prosperity—just as Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham felt them.  But these people were members of the upper class!  What about the farmer who labored over his own small plot of land just to eke out a living?  What about the shepherd?  These were Amos’s lot—not to mention Robin Hood’s—his colleagues if you will.  He knew and felt their pain keenly.  Talk of peace and prosperity meant little.  The spiritual wall of Israel was not true or right.  It lacked the integrity to stand on its own much longer.  And Amos knew it.

We encounter a similar problem in today’s Gospel, don’t we?  A man asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus’s response is typically wonderful.  And here I mean the older use of the term: it leaves us hearers in awe, in wonder.  For he tells the story of a man, most likely a Jew like himself, who falls in harm’s way, who is robbed and left half dead on the side of the road.  Along come not one but two devout Jews, a priest and a Levite.  But they do not stop to help.  Rather, we read that they pass by on the other side of the road, as if they are trying to distance themselves from the injured man as far as possible.  But then an unclean Samaritan comes along.  And seeing the heap of a wretch in the gutter he takes pity and helps, nursing the victim back to health, even offering to pay for his healthcare.

Do you see the rub here, what Jesus was surely getting at?  The man who helped the Jew was an “unclean” Samaritan.  Some Jews would not associate with Samaritans, thinking themselves above them.  But here Jesus says that the Samaritan is the true neighbor to the Jewish man who was robbed.

Now I’m not saying here that all Jews distanced themselves from Samaritans, just as I would never say that all Caucasians are racists.  But some did; and some are, as we have all experienced.  At any rate, Jesus is addressing something that is not right or true, something that lacks integrity, namely racism.

So we see two social sins in today’s readings.  The cultural contexts from which they come vary greatly from one another, just as they differ from our own world.  But the sins remain the same.  We have classism and racism all around us.  The poor will always be with us, as Jesus himself said.  But take inventory.  Make sure you are not doing anything personally to widen that classist gap between rich and poor.  Helping those in need is one thing; creating dependency in others is another.  One is service; the other superiority.  Likewise, do not consider yourself better than or above anyone else—whether a single person or an ethnicity.  That too is the sin of superiority.

Now, let’s return to that wall.  Amos saw the Lord standing next to it with a plumb line.  This wall was presumably part of the wall around Bethel, a city of ancient Israel.  The people of Israel built it for their own good.  And it had measured up.  It was true and right, a wall of integrity, no small player in the establishment of peace and prosperity that Amaziah cared so much about.

A biting irony in Amos’s message then is that the people of Israel would be forced into exile, sent outside of these very walls, these true and right walls, that they had established.

You see, in their concern to ensure their own safety, their own peace, their own prosperity; in their concern to establish a safe neighborhood where they could walk the dog comfortably after dark and send their kids to decent schools; in their concern for themselves, they had lost sight of the larger world around them and had become less than true, less than right, lacking integrity.

Keep your eyes open to the world around you.

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