By Mary Ricketts
This is the first of two readings from the prophet Amos. In the opening chapters of this book God has denounced the people of Israel, and said they have ruined all the “prophets-in-training.” So, Amos is given the proclamation from God, even though he raises cattle and sycamore trees.
In the first seven verses, God says God will send first locus and then a firestorm, but is talked out of it by Amos. Then, in verse 7, God says that a plumb line is what is really needed. It will be a measure to call the people to lives of justice and care for the powerless.
The plumb line has been a oft-used image for social justice groups. It conveys the idea of a straight guide that sets the wall, tile, or even the entire building square, so that the work will last. Of course, it is used in Amos to describe God’s dream of social justice for the entire community of faith, so that the community will last.
When the priest of the shine in Bethel, Amaziah, hears Amos declaring God’s instructions for the people, he tells Amos to go back to herding his cattle. These verses point to the ongoing conflicts between the institution of the priesthood and the institution of the prophet. Amaziah is responsible for the worship of the people, and in the case of Israel, the political stability of the country. Amos is responsible for speaking the words of God, and calling the people to accountability for their systems of oppression and injustice. The tension between the priest and the prophet is constant throughout our faith history. It is the call of the prophet that speaks reform and restoration to community lived in the way of God; to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
Psalm 82 is a good mix for the reading from Amos as it continues the theme of God’s justice. Reading through the psalm brought Gustavo Gutierrez to mind. Gutierrez is considered one of the founders of liberation theology. In the 1960s, he was a Catholic priest teaching in Peru. He was aware that the majority of the population lived in poverty and the Catholic Church’s theology did not address the pain and devastation of that poverty. In fact, it supported the status quo of injustice. He began the theological movement that did not just think about the nature of the Divine, but thought about who God is in the midst of the people and the reality of the injustices in their daily lives. As a process theologian, I look to God in the present moment, the moment of becoming and try to creatively seek justice and grace in the present choices.
Psalm 82 speaks to the disfranchised of Israel and brings into judgment those who abuse their power over the powerless. They are under greater judgment since it was their job to defend the weak. There are many stories in our world today that point to these same issues. As the church, we are called to join with the voice of the psalmist and the prophet to enact the plumb line of God’s justice for those who are powerless in our society.
This week’s lectionary begins the consecutive readings in the letter to the Colossians. Although it is not a genuine Pauline letter it is very similar to Paul’s letters to new faith communities. The first Christians found strength and direction from the epistles of their church leaders.
In these first verses of the letter are words of greeting and encouragement. There is a sense of connectedness through prayer and shared work for God’s realm. So, the dynamic of community is not just among those who are in Colosse, but for spiritual leaders who are praying for them. The locus of the community is in Christ who is the head of the Church and directs the mission of those who are in Christ. It is this connectedness that gives power and energy to a new community of faith like the one in Colosse.
Eugene Peterson paraphrases the final verses of this passage wonderfully:
“As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us.
God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. He’s set us up in the kingdom of the Son he loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating.”
In the letters to the first Christians, it is clear that the journey on The Way is not easily traveled, but the “glory-strength” of God makes the journey possible and even fills it with joy. It is a journey on which we grow in understanding of God and of ourselves. And perhaps most importantly, it is even the power to transform our lives, so we are not doomed to repeat the deadening behavior of the past.
The gospel passage brings us back to the theme of justice expressed in our Hebrew Scripture pericopes.
You might have preached on this story more than once, but let’s look at it again.
A person who is an expert on religious law asks the “new teacher in town” what he must do to get eternal life. Jesus, who never seems to give a direct answer to any question, asks the lawyer what he has read. The Great Shema and the direction to love your neighbor as yourself is the answer. The lawyer’s search for a loophole brings the iconic story of the Good Samaritan.
With this story, Jesus drops the plumb line of God’s justice into the conversation. I find it amazing that Jesus wasn’t killed sooner with stories where the outsider is the hero and the insiders are the jerks. Much has been written about the reasons why the priest and the Levite passed by the man in need. Essentially, they let religious rules and conventions stop them from reaching out in compassion. The rules that stopped the priest and the Levite are no longer relevant, but the same type of constrains seem to limit our lives even today.
So, the transformational figure of the story is a half-breed outsider who uses his resources to help someone who has been beaten and robbed. The act of compassion creates a relationship of neighbor.
The lawyer closes his own loophole by naming this relationship created by the Samaritan’s act of kindness.
Jesus final words to the lawyer are to “go and do likewise.” I find this statement interesting in a country where many of our religious institutions focus faith on saying the correct phase, such as, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” or that we love the acceptable mate, or that we maintain beautiful buildings for our worship experience. God’s measure of justice, a plumb line, calls us to enact God’s compassion for our neighbor, and who is our neighbor. Well, it would be nice if it was the clean-cut millionaire, but it seems to be the guy who is beat up and lying in a ditch.