NRSV AMOS 7:7-17
7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 8 And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?”
And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,
“See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,
‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’ ”
12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
16 “Now therefore hear the word of the LORD.
You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’
17 Therefore thus says the LORD:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’ ”
NRSV LUKE 10:25-37
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your 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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.
31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Okay, so I know you are all ready to hear the 14,222,586th sermon on the Good Samaritan. At least.
So I am going to put my human existence as well as my ministerial career on the line by hoping you will allow me to start off with the Old Testament text. And I want to do it by talking about something really out of context – last week’s Baseball All Star Game.
The game doesn’t mean as much to me as it did when I was younger. These days it’s just an exhibition game in which good players can get hurt. But it still stands at the halfway mark of a very long baseball season, and recently it has also had the added attraction of having a home run derby, where the best sluggers in the game compete against each other to see who can hit the most home runs. You get extra points for distance but it is the number of homers that counts.
It was a little more interesting for me this year than usual, in that a player from my beloved New York Mets, a first-year guy named Peter Alonso, won the contest. A lot of people thought he would win – after all he has already hit 30 homers this year, an incredible number considering he’s a rookie. Of course that hasn’t kept the Mets from their usual doldrums, losing more than they are winning, and putting them closer to last place than first.
In baseball, at least as far as hitters go, the home run is a kind of plumb line. You know, the device they used in older times to make sure a wall was going up straight. Nowadays they use levelers, but plumb lines are still used by builders to make sure a wall isn’t leaning too much to one side. A home run is a plumb line, an indicator that a player is a good hitter (even if some purists insist there are better plumb lines.).
There are all kinds of plumb lines in our lives, whether we call them that or not – indicators that show us if we are going the right way, or we are leaning a little too much to be of any good. Paying attention to our plumb lines is a good way to make sure we are going in the right direction. Not paying attention to them may mean that we have missed a turn somewhere; we have lost our focus, our grounding, and we may need to start all over again.
The book of Amos is a series of prophecies directed toward the nation of Israel, the northern tribes who broke away from Judah right after Solomon died. At the time Amos preached things seemed to be going pretty good; it was a peaceful time, there was a lot of wealth in the land (for some), everything seemed to be great. But Amos was called from his work taking care of sycamore trees because something was amiss in that land. People were just going through the motions when they were at worship. They couldn’t wait for the Sabbath to be over before they could be right back at it, seeing who they could take advantage of. Shallow worship and a deep sense of greed were heavy in the land.
In the face of that, God gives Amos some visions. The first two showed a plague of locusts, and a shower of fire that would devastate the land. Amos begs God to relent, because the nation is too small. God relents, but on this next one neither does the prophet beg nor the Lord relent. God is standing by a wall with a plumb line – a line that shows that the wall of justice was crooked and misshapen. The result would be a disaster for the people and the land.
Of course to such a message there is always opposition. Speaking truth to power is not easy. The truth is hard for some people to accept, especially those who are taking full advantage of the way things are going, no matter how crooked they are. Amaziah, the King’s priest, tells Amos to go back where he came from, the land of the south, to Judah, and leave the northern tribes and their king alone.
But Amos sees the plumb line, and it is not lining up well at all. No matter how good it may be for a limited number of people, disaster is on the rise because God has not been properly worshipped, and people have not loved their neighbors as themselves.
Now to finally get to that wonderful Parable of the Good Samaritan, that story that you probably didn’t even need to open your Bibles to read. A noted scholar wrote years ago that a parable was a short story that was meant to tease the mind into active thought, leaving the reader uncertain as to the exact meaning. The parables of Jesus are not meant to be stuck in a box with a label on them. They are meant to perpetually tease us, giving us new meanings and new understandings every time we read them.
So while I know full well that my words will not wrap up this wonderful story, let me just suggest that maybe there is a plumb line here. But perhaps it is not the plumb line we expect. We think the plumb line is the Good Samaritan, though Jesus himself does not use the word “good.” That hasn’t stopped us. We use “Good Samaritan” for things like hospitals and churches, for organizations meant to help the poor, for laws meant to protect people who want to do good even though that act may be a bit dangerous. A Good Samaritan is what we all want to be, right? After all, Jesus wraps the whole thing up by telling this lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” Be like the Good Samaritan. Take care of those who are in need. Heal the broken, go above and beyond for those who are helpless. Of course, that is our plumb line as Christians. Serve in the name of Jesus. Go and do likewise.
Yes, but … there is that tease again. The thought that maybe there is more to this story than a neat explanation.
For one thing, there is the temptation to think that the Samaritan was a really nice guy. After all, we call him “Good.” Maybe he was. But he was not one of the chosen. That would have been either the priest or the Levite who went passing on by. The Samaritan was not one of “us,” however you want to define “us.” The enmity between the Samaritans and the Hebrews was deep and spiteful. It went back years. In order to get a picture of this, imagine the Samaritan as the last person in the world you would have expected to do something kind, something honorable, something inspiring.
If you are a political conservative, imagine someone from a Trump rally being beaten up and left on the side of the road. An evangelical church leader passes by; a long time Republican official does, too. But it is someone from the Me,Too Movement who has compassion and takes the time and effort to stoop down in the mud and clean him up, and take him to a place where he can get some help.
If you are a political liberal, imagine someone from a rally for the environment being beaten up within an inch of their life. A social activist pastor looks them over but keeps on walking. So, too, does someone with an MSNBC t-shirt. But a Tea Party activist comes along, has pity on the person, tends to them and takes them to the local emergency room.
The Samaritan is not one of us. The Samaritan is someone from the other side of the fence. The Samaritan is a person we have hard time being civil with. The Samaritan is from a different class, a different race, a different religion – or, in these days, maybe no religion. The Samaritan is not just the other; he or she is about as far outside of our lifetime experiences or expectations as you could imagine. But it is their response that marks who they truly are – not with political correctness, but with compassion. They feel for the one in the ditch.
And it is the one in the ditch who is the centerpiece of this story – at least for Jesus. When he has told the story, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Who was the neighbor to the one who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer cannot even come up with enough gumption to say, “The Samaritan” because of all the enmity and hard feelings over the years. But it is the person in the ditch we should keep in mind. He is not in control; he is broken, wounded, helpless. He cannot help himself. He is totally vulnerable. For me, Debi Thomas again puts it so well when she wrote:
“What does it mean to be afflicted by this story? It means locating ourselves, not in the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan, but in the wounded man, dying on the road. Notice that he is the only character in the story not defined by profession, social class, or religious belief. He has no identity at all except naked need. Maybe we have to occupy his place in the story first – maybe we have to become the broken one, grateful to anyone at all who will show us mercy – before we can feel the unbounded compassion of the Good Samaritan. Why? Because all tribalisms fall away by the broken road. All division of ‘us’ and ‘them’ disappear of necessity. When you’re lying bloody in a ditch, what matters is not whose help you’d prefer, whose way of practicing Christianity you like best, whose politics you agree with. What matters is whether or not anyone will stop to show you mercy before you die.
“If it hasn’t happened yet – your encounter on that dark road – it will. Somehow, someday, somewhere, it will. In a hospital room? At a graveside? After a marriage fails? When a cherished job goes bust? After the storm, the betrayal, the war, the injury, the diagnosis? Somehow, someday, somewhere. In every single one of our lives, it will happen.
“When it does, it won’t be your theology that saves you. It won’t be your cherished affiliations that matter. All that will matter is how quickly you swallow your pride and grab hold of that hand you hoped never to touch. How readily you’ll agree to receive help from the enemy you fear… Your neighbor is the one who scandalizes you with compassion, Jesus answered. Your neighbor is the one who upends all your entrenched categories and shocks you with a fresh face of God. Your neighbor is the one who mercifully steps over the ancient, bloodied line separating ‘us’ from ‘them,’ and teaches us the real meaning of ‘Good.’”
Throughout these stories the plumb line, the indicator that our spiritual houses are going up straight is not our adherence to the law, it is not having the right answer for every theological issue. It is not being a good person or how many times we’ve been to church. The plumb line of our lives as children of God, as followers of Jesus Christ, is mercy. The times we let of the gavel we wanted to bring down on someone else. The times we let go of the judgment we think they deserve. The times we have let ourselves be surprised by the grace they live in.
Go and do likewise, Jesus tells us. Take care of others, but also remember the times you’ve been in the ditch, so you can practice the same mercy you wanted there in every part of your life. Amen.