Text: Amos 7:7-17
When someone mentions the phrase “Old Testament prophet,” most of us who have been raised in the traditions of the Christian church reflexively think of one or more of the great Hebrew prophets of the classical period: Isaiah, who spoke of God’s gift of a special child; or Jeremiah, who lamented the impending doom of his nation; or Ezekiel, whose bizarre visions were sometimes matched by his equally bizarre behavior. It is not inaccurate to think in terms of such personalities when thinking of the prophets. Indeed, it is almost inevitable, because these are among the towering Old Testament individuals whose personal experiences of God have helped to shape and to inform the religious experiences of Jews and Christians for thousands of years. However, if we think of the Old Testament prophets only as those for whom biblical books have been named, we overlook the contributions of countless other persons without whom the work of these great “canonical” or classical prophets might not have been possible. Take for instance the seven women prophets of the Hebrew scriptures: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hulda and Esther. Who could deny their contributions in shaping and informing the religious experience of Jews and Christians? And yet, the only one for whom a biblical book is named is Esther.
Many people today think of a prophet as any person who sees the future. While the gift of prophecy certainly includes the ability to see the future, a prophet is far more than just a person with that ability. A prophet is basically a spokesperson for God, a person chosen by God to speak to people on God’s behalf and convey a message or teaching. Prophets, in the Bible, were role models of holinesss, scholarship and closeness to God. They set the spiritual, moral and ethical standards for the entire community. What defined a prophet in biblical times was not so much his or her ability to see into the future, but rather to see what was happening in the present and then offer a word of spiritual guidance, caution or direction.
Amos was one such prophet. We have been given very little biographical information about Amos, but that which we have is quite interesting. Amos 1:1, the editorial introduction of the entire book, tells us that the prophet was a shepherd from the region of the Judean village of Tekoa, a few miles south of Jerusalem. Much of this land was rough and sparse and, as we know from the stories about young David, who was also a shepherd, it was capable of producing individuals who were as independent and tough as the conditions under which they lived. Amos 7:14 adds the information that Amos also tended sycamore trees, pinching their fruit so that it would ripen and become fit for eating. It seems likely that Amos was more than a day laborer, for his literary and oratorical skills imply some formal education and contact with other literate persons. So he may have been the owner of an agricultural enterprise of some kind, although it is very doubtful that he was a wealthy man.
At some point in his life Amos responded to God’s call that he become a prophet, although he apparently had had no previous prophetic connections. Once Amos responded to God’s call, he traveled to the Northern religious center of Bethel – the most important shrine of Yahweh worship in the Northern Kingdom at the time – and there delivered a series of oracles in which he promised the destruction of the nation. His reasoning was quite clear, if not always convincing, to those who heard him. Israel had repudiated or disobeyed Yahweh because it had turned from justice and righteousness and had oppressed the poor and helpless in its midst. Therefore, the prophet proclaimed, God would destroy the nation. There were probably some few who responded with sympathy to Amos’ words, but the reaction of most is characterized by the hostility of the Bethel priest Amaziah who sought a royal commission to banish Amos from the land. (I guess community service was not an option back then.) Being a prophet is not a popular job. We do not know how Amos reacted to this attempt at official interference with his prophetic mission, but it is a significant reading of the pulse of the religious establishment and of those in power that such an attempt was made. In true typical fashion, the religious establishment wanted nothing to do with the prophetic voice of Amos and his vision of a plumb line. It is funny how religious institutions have a long history of rejecting God’s prophets.
I am embarrassed to tell you this morning just how much time I’ve spent trying to really understand what a plumb line is, despite the fact that I have, according to the official records, preached on this text at least once before. Regardless, I do not find the concept of the plumb line an easy one to conjure. I will recount for you what I have read – that it is a weight, suspended from a string that surveyors and builders use to do two things: the first is to establish a vertical reference line; the second is to mark the center of a structure, toward which builders work to ensure stability as they build higher and higher from the ground.
As we try to make sense of the use of a plumb line in Amos’ prophecy, it feels important to begin with Amos himself. As I touched on in the brief biography of Amos, he was not of the prophetic tradition, meaning he did not come from a line of prophets; nor was he trained or groomed to be a prophet. He was, as they say, “a Washington outsider.” Now consider the first use I cited for a plumb line – to establish a vertical reference line, or a true line against which to work when building. So why do builders need plumb lines? Why is it so hard, in the midst of building, to see if a beam or a wall is vertical? It seems, from the outside, like an easy enough visual to establish. And yet, like anyone who has tried to hang a picture in a hundred-year-old house will tell you, it’s not that easy. As the complexity around us grows, either in the construction of a building or in the running of a society, the ability to differentiate between straight and crooked gets harder and harder.
In biblical usage, the plumb line represents the terms of the covenant God had established with Israel – a covenant to love God and to love and care for one another. At the time of Amos’ arrival into Bethel, Israel is prospering. And as she prospers, Israel begins to build confidence in her own judgment, in her own wisdom. Like an eager adolescent, Israel starts to test out her own plumb line and begins to move away from God’s covenant as a measure of what is right. And like all good societies, Israel builds infrastructure around her prosperity to ensure that it continues – infrastructure that is more concerned with institutional survival than with love and justice. As an agent of that infrastructure, the religious establishment is completely complicit in that shift away from the covenant and toward internal, institutional self-reference. The vertical reference line is lost, replaced by a flag pole that represents the new “right” of Israel.
As we think of our own covenant with God, to love God and to love and care for one another, we have to wonder about our plumb line for today. It would be nice if there was a weight hanging suspended from some heavenly place against which we could measure our actions. There is nothing so literal; and yet, our measure of our faithfulness to the covenant is never far away, and is not at all hard to discern. It is, in the most simplistic terms, visible all around us. It is visible in how we treat the child who arrives at school in the morning who hasn’t had a safe night’s rest, whose starting point is from a place of disadvantage. God is standing beside that child holding her hand and asking us, “What do you see?” The plumb line is the mother who is working two jobs to provide for her child, but still not able to keep her safe. God is standing beside that mother asking us, “What do you see?” Our plumb line is the migrant worker, who is undocumented, trying to make an honest living, unable to advocate for basic needs for fear of deportation. And God is standing in the field beside that worker asking us, “What do you see?” We can measure how straight we are against the homeless person who has suffered from schizophrenia his whole life and has no place of support left because he has exhausted his own family resources, while state budgets have been cut and facilities closed. And God is sitting there under a bridge with that man asking us, “What do you see?” The prophetic voice of God has not changed. How we treat the poor and the oppressed and the marginalized and the powerless and those who are suffering is our plumb line – it is our daily, visible measure of how we are keeping or not keeping our own covenant with God, to do God’s justice, to show God’s compassion and to extend God’s mercy.
The message of the prophet Amos, and of most of the prophets, is a dark and looming message. But there is a word of hope. The word of hope is that the prophetic witness is not exclusive to a select group of people. There is no induction into the guild of prophets. Instead, each of us has a prophetic voice that the world needs to hear. But in order to be that prophetic voice, and to be God’s people in the world, we have to be willing to step outside our places of comfort and privilege – we have to be willing to be an outsider in a world that focuses our attention on being on the inside. By all scholarly accounts, Amos’ prophetic voice lasted a year, and then he went back to being a shepherd and a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. I like to imagine that after that year Amos re-entered his own daily life as a different person, changed by God’s call to be a prophet. I also like to imagine that the next time and the next time and the next time that God called Amos to prophecy, Amos picked up his plumb line and headed out to be one of God’s seers.
God asked Amos, “What do you see?” And Amos said, “A plumb line.” Today, God asks us, “What do you see?”