Text: Amos 7:7-17, Luke 10:25-37
My first experience with a plumb line was in 1989 when I took a group of youth to Charleston, SC to build a Habitat house. That week I learned how to lay shingles, hang vinyl siding, and use a plumb line. I must admit that of all the tools I encountered that week, the plumb line was not the most exciting; if you know anything about my kind of people, you will guess accurately that the power tools were the most exciting. But I will admit that the plumb line was, of all the tools, the most intriguing. I learned that in the world of construction, a plumb line is used to ensure that the construction worker hits the right spot and stays on target. Now for me, a person who hangs pictures by the imprecise method of “eyeballing,” using a plumb line was new and challenging. Did the wall really have to be perfectly straight, level, and squared? And would it really matter if it were not? I found out the answers to those questions some time later when I bought my first old house in which not one wall was plumb. Quickly, I discovered that it does matter—it matters a lot. As I have learned, the only good thing about an out-of-plumb house is that you can get away with “eyeballing” hanging pictures. As a matter of fact, it is the only way you can hang anything on an unplumbed wall and have it look right.
The basis for a plumb line in construction goes back well over 2,000 years, even to the building of the pyramids. And the concept of plumb lines doesn’t just apply to building physical structures. We use this same concept in society by collectively determining what is embraced by our social norms and what is not. Yes, the underlying concept of a societal plumb line – a measure of what is right and wrong for ourselves and others -has been around even longer than the construction tool that has built pyramids, cathedrals, barns, and houses. It has been with us since the beginning of time.
Almost all faith practices and/or common social norms have a set structure of rules to follow—what’s allowed, what’s not allowed. For our society, one of our foundational plumb lines is our legal system. One personal example of how important it is to follow these legal laws—the one that I have the most experience with—is the law enforcing how fast we can drive our cars. It is not acceptable or allowed to go 70 if the sign says 55. There is no “eyeballing” the speed limit if a state trooper is nearby. Trust me, it does matter if you miss that target. But it’s not just legal laws that serve as plumb lines for our society. There are many societal norms that define yet another, more subtle set of rules for what is allowed and what is not within our culture—norms such as the distance we stand from one another when we are talking, or the proper greeting of shaking hands, or saying please and thank you, and then of course that one that we are all thinking about—not picking your nose in public.
These societal plumb lines may best be understood as a kind of moral measuring tape. For people of faith, the Bible is a measure, or plumb line, of making sure that what we are doing is right based on certain moral or ethical principles. Whether it is the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, or the Beatitudes, the Bible offers a different set of principles or yet another plumb line to consider if we desire to follow the way of Jesus. References to the use of a plumb line in the scriptures are almost always that of God’s plumb line to measure how righteously people stand according to God’s desire for humanity. In other words, God’s plumb line seeks to hold us accountable to such things as doing justice, loving mercy, extending grace, showing compassion, and practicing kindness. The text we have read this morning from Amos is a prime example of how God used the image of a plumb line to speak to the people of Israel.
In the seventh chapter of Amos, it seems that the people had lost their way. They had gotten off center and become self-indulgent. As God often did, and still does, God sent a prophet to stand in the midst of them to remind them just how far off target they had gone. That prophet was Amos, a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. Here’s the story he tells. Standing beside a wall built with a plumb line and with a plumb line in hand, God said to Amos, “What do you see?” Amos responded, “A plumb line.” Then God said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.” I will never again pass them by—translated: it’s time to own up. Suzanne Newton calls this, “God’s tough love.” And it is a love that we often experience from God in the Hebrew Scriptures—a parental love that who holds us accountable and extends consequences. The lectionary group spent quite a bit of time Wednesday debating this “tough love” God of the Old Testament with the forgiving and grace-filled God of the New Testament. Indeed, throughout Christian history, there has been great debate as to how God responds when humanity goes off center, when we lose our focus, or fail to live by the standards that God has set for us. In many ways, as people of faith, we have separated ourselves by whether we understand God primarily as a punishing God or a forgiving God. It seems that that one question has amazing power to dictate to a large degree how we understand our faith and live our faith. I don’t have an answer to the question, “Is God primarily a punishing God or a forgiving God?” But I will say this: there is something for us to learn from both the God of the Hebrew narrative and the God who is revealed to us through the grace and compassion of Christ. Those of us who identify with a forgiving God should be cautious of simply and quickly dismissing how the Israelites understood God’s response to their waywardness in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. I fear that in our hurry to get to God’s compassion and grace, embodied through Jesus in the New Testament, we minimize the full story—the intimate and evolving nature of God’s relationship with humanity and humanity’s evolving understanding of God. One thing is for sure; we must not lose sight that throughout all of scripture God is a just God—a God of justice. Punishment and forgiveness are very real aspects of how we experience that justice, but the fact is, God’s justice is consistent.
And so with words of justice on his lips, the prophet Amos warned the people that if they didn’t reset and refocus their plumb line, God’s judgment would surely come to rest upon them. Amos knew well God’s plumb line—justice for the oppressed and the poor. And his prophetic words have become the most often cited words of modern day prophets, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” God’s plumb line is justice for all. Or, as we like to quote, what does God require of us but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
There are many weeks that I read all the lectionary texts and wonder, “What do these texts have in common?” Not this week. The familiar story of the Good Samaritan illustrates in a very tangible way what it means to live according to God’s plumb line.
You know the story. A lawyer asks Jesus the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Staying within the context of the lawyer’s world, Jesus asked him, “What is written in the law?” To which the lawyer gave a legal response according to the laws of faith, “You shall love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said that’s correct; you have given the right answer. But the lawyer couldn’t leave it there and went on to ask, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus then tells the story of the Good Samaritan.
What strikes me about this story when you lay it alongside the Amos text is this: sometimes it isn’t enough to just have the right answer. As much as we want to be right, being right is not the goal. The true test of God’s plumb line is what we do with the right answer. What’s interesting about the plumb line is that we are the ones holding it. And we have the choice of how we hold it, steady and true, or waving it around simply “eyeballing” the target.
There are arguments—theological arguments—that explain why, according to the societal norms and laws of the day, the priest and Levite didn’t stop. And yet, Jesus holds up a plumb line and asks the defining, possibly ultimate plumb line or bottom line question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man in need?” And then he gives us not just the right answer, but the plumb line answer, “The one who showed him mercy.”
And then Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”