FIRST LESSON: Amos 7: 7-17
The Book of Amos is included among the twelve minor prophets, called “minor” not because they are less significant but because the writings are shorter than Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In ancient Judaism, these shorter prophetic writings were part of one scroll in the Temple.
Supposedly, Amos was called from his life as a shepherd in Judah to speak the word of the Lord to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He was probably more likely a person of some standing who traded sheep and goats in the agricultural market. During this time, the Northern Kingdom was experiencing a time of great prosperity under King Jeroboam, and they assumed that their power and privilege was a blessing from God to them as the chosen people. But in their prosperity, they had forgotten the poor and the suffering and neglected to share their fruits with those in need. Their religious observance had become rule-driven and devoid of social justice. This is what prompted Amos’ message.
This passage from Amos is actually a depiction of Amos’ third vision in the midst of a total of five visions. The vision is of God, the Divine Builder, standing beside a wall with a plumb line. A plumb line is part of an ancient bit of construction technology, not really necessary with today’s advanced building methods. The plumb bob is a heavy piece of lead in the shape of an inverted raindrop. The point of the plumb bob, in perfect line with the plumb line, marks a perfect vertical drop between where the line begins and the ground below. Used by stonemasons and builders for centuries, it would provide a measure for a perfectly straight wall. So if something is “out of plumb”, so to speak, it is crooked, imperfect, unsightly, and may even be potentially dangerous. The point is, sloppiness can skew or distort the entire picture.
So, the vision is of the Lord standing by a perfectly-constructed wall with a divine plumb line that will measure how “plumb” the people are. According to the prophet, what is out of “plumb”, what is not the way it should be, will fall away. Amos spells out a dire vision for the future of Israel: the queen would become a prostitute, the royal children dying by sword, and the people of Israel taken into exile by foreigners.
So Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, reports to King Jeroboam II that Amos is conspiring the king’s death and Israel’s fall. In doing this, the center of Israel is misunderstood as Jeroboam, and the sanctuary as the king’s. There is a failure to recognize here that everything is really God’s. Israel has forgotten its builder.
Amaziah tells Amos to leave and return to Judah and not bother the “status quo” in Israel. He assumes that Amos is a “professional prophet” that can return and get his bread in Judah. But Amos was not part of the religious establishment. His legitimacy as a prophet comes from the fact that he IS an outsider (a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees). Amos’ power is to disturb the status quo with his prophecy. And in 721 BCE, the Northern Kingdom would fall into the hands of Assyria.
Amos’ words do not deny God’s Presence but rather the people’s (us?) unwillingness to live lives that reflect that presence of justice and mercy. But God does not close a Divine eye to injustice. Because, you see, it just doesn’t fit with the vision that God holds for the world and for us. Amos just had the courage to speak the truth.
1) What is your response to this passage?
2) What does that image of the “plumb line” mean for you?
3) How would our own society or our own church or even our own lives fare with this “plumb line” standard of measurement? How does this speak to our culture today?
4) Why is it so hard for us to hear and heed prophetic warnings?
5) What is the difference between a question of perfection and a question of justice?
NEW TESTAMENT: Colossians 1: 1-14
Colossians is one of those letters that is attributed to Paul but that there are some doubts as to whether or not Paul actually penned the epistle. It is one of those that is considered a “disputed” letter of Paul. The practice was not uncommon to attach a teacher or mentor’s name to a work out of respect or reverence.
It begins with the author giving thanks for the faith of the people at Colossae. The letter is complimentary of them, for they have shown love to others and it goes on by urging them to see themselves as part of something bigger that is expanding as time goes on. The mention of Epaphras might even indicate that this person is the author of the letter and that he is using it to connect himself to Paul, but that is just speculation by some commentators.
The latter part of the passage that we read begins to reveal a key theme in the entire letter. Against the claims of intruders who confuse this newfound faith with new theories and demands, the writer prays that the Colossians might have wisdom and knowledge and strength to hold fast in their faith. He wants them to not get stressed over the intrusion of these other views, but to have peace in their own convictions in God who makes a place of belonging for each of us.
Colossians is written to Gentile Christians and the author is claiming that there is a place for them among the holy and chosen ones of Israel. They, too, will share in the inheritance of a relationship with God that faith brings. Here, coming to faith means moving from a system of authority and power into the realm and kingdom of Christ, which is characterized by love. Here, believers will find redemption and forgiveness of sins.
Some are saying that God’s love is not so free, but depends on religious rites and achievements which must be performed if we are to be sure of getting past the powers which hold sway in this universe. The result can be religious preoccupation with our own destiny. We can become busy trying to justify ourselves and lose our perspective of what faith really is. We can do that by performing religious rites or doing many other things “religiously”. We can even make ourselves busy with overwork (even with church work!) to achieve that sense of being valued and ultimately coming through and finding a place of worth. Colossians is proclaiming a generous love which says: stop all this and believe in grace! You don’t have to become religious in this way. On the contrary, you can be liberated from such religion to be free to respond to God and others and yourselves with joy! For the writer of this letter, hope in the present is grounded in our hope for the future.
Essentially, the writer is calling the Colossian believers to look at themselves. What is it that they are known for—being “religious” or being “faithful”, being “good” or being “loving”? It’s an interesting question. How is your church described by those on the streets outside?
1) What meaning does this passage hold for you?
2) What, then, does this passage claim that faith is and what does it claim faith is not?
3) What does the notion of “inheritance” mean for you?
4) Why is it so difficult for us to not fall into the presumption that we need to somehow “earn” our place with God by being religious or being good?
5) For what do you think our church would be known? How would others characterize us?
GOSPEL: Luke 10: 25-37
This is, of course, a familiar text. So familiar, in fact, that we may or may not hear it completely. We know what happens: a man gets beat up and left for dead; a priest sees him and passes by; a Levite sees him and passes by; a Samaritan sees him and helps him. The Samaritan wins the contest.
We read that it begins with a test of Jesus, perhaps a way of trying to catch Jesus up in his own words. Because this well-learned person, this lawyer, this expert in the Law of Moses, already knew the answer to the question before he asked, these words so much a part of the Jewish faith. “So, then, Jesus, (he asks smugly) what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “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.” Indeed, you shall love God with everything that you are. And, just as importantly, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But just having the right answer does not necessarily mean that we know God. And when the man is told by Jesus to “Go and do,” he responds with his own tripping question. “And who is my neighbor?” Because in the learned man’s mind and in the society in which he lived his righteous and good life, some were considered acceptable neighbors and others were not. Some were considered clean and righteous and worthy of respect according to religious law and some were not. So, he thought, it is important for Jesus to of course clarify the directive to love your neighbor. Well, of course, the expected reply would be something like “your relatives and friends; those who live their lives the way you do in respectable and acceptable ways; those who think like you and believe like you—THOSE are your neighbors.
But Jesus, in true Jesus-fashion, turned the assumed law upside down. Because it is not about laws; it is about love. And so Jesus tells what is now for us a familiar story.
The road that goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho is 17 miles long, dropping about 3,000 feet. It is hazardous and filled with thieves and robbers, who beat and strip this man and leave him for dead. Now note that Jesus leaves the man undescribed. Jewish listeners would probably have assumed that he was one of them. But, in all honesty, he could be anyone—no ethnicity, no particular religion, no certain economic status. All we know about him is that he is just our neighbor. In essence, Jesus is saying “I do not know his name because it doesn’t matter. He is anyone who lies in need at life’s roadside.”
The first person that happens by is a priest. He saw the poor man, but he passed by on the other side. Now, in defense of the priest, religious law dictated that he could only touch those who were clean unless he washed again before he went to the Temple (but of course, we could beg the question of “How hard would that really have been?”). Then a Levite passes by, also on the other side of the road. As one who assisted the priest, perhaps he saw the priest pass by and assumed that he needed to do the same. (But then, that too, is really just an excuse. If the priest had jumped off the cliff, would the Levite have done that?)
And then a Samaritan approached the wounded man. Now you have to understand that the relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews was anything but friendly. Both believed in God and both had a monotheistic understanding of the one true God, the YHWH of their shared belief. But where the temple of YHWH for the Jews existed on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the Samaritans instead worshipped God on Mount Gerazim near the ancient city of Shechem. Though both were bound by the Law of Moses, each believed that their line of priests and their way of religious understanding was the right one. What began as an argument in semantics some 1,000 years before the birth of Christ had escalated into a relationship based on hatred and violence and the perceived notion that the other was unacceptable.
But here is this Samaritan—an outsider, an undesirable—treating and bandaging the man’s wounds, risking defilement (probably even risking infection). He then picked up the man and took him to a place of shelter, giving the innkeeper money out of his own pocket for the man’s lodging. He did more than just supply band-aids, though. He entered the man’s life and shared his own life with him. Go and do likewise.
The point is that it is no longer enough just to be nice. It means that it is not enough to give out the time and money and love that we can spare. It means that this story is no longer about figuring out who your neighbor is. It means, rather, that we are called to enter our neighbor’s life and allow them to enter ours. It means that we realize that, as this passage says, love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable. It means that we can become “fully human”, “fully made in the image of God” only by allowing ourselves to enter each others’ lives.
There is an African proverb that says, “I am human only because you are human.” We need to see one another as neighbors in order to experience the community that God created for us. We are all part of the neighborhood. We are all called to be a part of each others’ lives. Go and do likewise.
So, who, then, IS my neighbor? Whose life am I called to enter and invite to enter mine? Well, what this parable says is that the question is essentially moot. Turn and look at the person next to you. That is your neighbor. Do you see the woman crossing the street looking for the food pantry? She is your neighbor. Do you see the person with whose lifestyle you do not understand, possibly do not condone? Do you see the child in Africa, hungry with no safe water to drink and no real shelter? That child is your neighbor. Turn and look at the person on the other side of you. Each and every one of God’s children is your neighbor. Maya Angelou said that “I note the obvious differences between each sort and type. But we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” This parable defines everyone—friend, enemy, foreigner, threat—as “neighbor”. And then tells us, that we shall love our neighbor as ourselves.
And by loving our neighbors with the same intensity and fervor that we love ourselves, there is no longer room for greed, self-promoting egoism, or violence. There is no longer room for the prioritizing of our resources. There is no longer room to value one life over another. The road is no longer wide enough to simply pass by on the other side. There is no person who is anything less than a neighbor.
Yes, sometimes, being a true neighbor is controversial and even dangerous business. Sometimes being a neighbor means risking or even giving up part of yourself. Henri Nouwen said, though, that “only when we have the courage to cross the road and look into one another’s eyes can we see that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.”
1) What meaning does this passage hold for you?
2) What preconceived perceptions are usually attached to this story?
3) With what character do you most identify in this story?
4) So, who, then, is your neighbor?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
There can be little growth in holiness without growth in a sense of social justice. (Edward Hays)
To believe you can approach transcendence without drawing nearer in compassion to suffering humanity is to fool yourself. There can be no genuine personal religious conversion without a change in social attitude. (William Sloane Coffin, Credo)
I note the obvious differences between each sort and type. But we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. (Maya Angelou)
O God of every nation, of every race and land, redeem your whole creation with your almighty hand; where hate and fear divide us, and bitter threats are hurled, in love and mercy guide us, and heal our strife-torn world.
From search for wealth and power and scorn of truth and right, from trust in bombs that shower destruction through the night, from pride of race and station and blindness to your way, deliver every nation, eternal God, we pray.
Keep bright in us the vision of days when war shall cease, when hatred and division give way to love and peace, till dawns the morning glorious when truth and justice reign, and Christ shall rule victorious o’er all the world’s domain.
(William W. Reid, Jr., “O God of Every Nation”, 1958, UMH # 435)