20th July 2016 - Hugh Perry
Sermon handout July 10th 2016
Maurice Andrew suggests the idea of Yahweh holding a plumb-line against the people could be referring to dilapidated city walls.  However the plumb line might also be a metaphor of assessing the people’s trueness. Are they true straight and upright in their loyalty to the divine laws and just living?
Amos’ words are not well received and Amaziah tells the king that Amos’ words are too harsh for people to bear and he instructs Amos to desist.
Amos notes that he is not a prophet or a prophet’s son which Andrew says probably means that he is not one of the band of professional prophets that can be ordered around by the priest. He was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. The sycamore was a type of fig tree which was inferior to the figs we know but was very popular with the poor because it had three crops a year. A dresser made an incision in the fruit before they were ripe so that the juice ran out and the rest fermented, giving the fruit a sweet taste.
The lawyer’s questions are asked in both Mark and Mathew but in Luke the question relates to eternal life and not the greatest commandment and in Luke Jesus has the lawyer answer his own question.
Furthermore it is only Luke who has the parable, or as Craddock suggests is more correct, the example story of the helpful Samaritan. 
Jesus’ society understood neighbours as people of the same family, tribe or nation but this reading challenges that assumption and suggests that those who behave in a neighbourly way are neighbours?
There is a popular image of prophets that suggests that they are people who predict the future and when we read about the prophets of the past that certainly seems true. But if their predictions had not come true then history would probably not have remembered them and certainly not called them prophets. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but that doesn’t help identify contemporary prophets. The definition I like is that prophets are people who say if you carry on like that bad things will happen. Prophets can be very helpful if they are listened to.
Some time ago scientist suggested that there was a massive hole developing in the ozone layer over Antarctica which was caused by fluorocarbons from things like aerosols and fridges. So the world changed the chemicals used in the guilty products and now scientists are saying the ozone layer is shrinking. That was a relatively easy fix and doing something about global warming involves massive changes to manufacturing, agriculture, property speculation and all sorts of other ways people get very rich. So one reaction to the prediction is to say that the scientific prophets are wrong and some organisations have even employed scientist to rebut the evidence for global warming.
Our reading opens with a metaphor of a plumb line. Amos sees God holding a plumb line beside a wall then the divinity says that God will hold a plumb line against Israel.
Metaphorically that is what prophets do; they hold a plumb line to a society, to its ethical standards and point out which way it leans.
A plumb line is a very ancient tool that uses gravity to make sure walls are perfectly upright. If a wall is not plumb, cannot line up with the plumb line, the wall could fall down.
The prophetic message, in all its variety, is that if society does not line up against its ethical guidelines, its ideals and understanding of justice that society will also collapse.
The priest in our reading told Amos to go somewhere else and say his hard saying but Amos points out that he is not a professional prophet. Amos works in the agricultural industry; he is a herdsman and a dresser of fig trees. What Amos is stressing is that he is not a prophet that the priest or the king employs to feed people with official propaganda. Amos is not a scientist employed by the fossil fuel industry to say that solar power sucks energy from the sun and may destroy it.
Amos is a concerned citizen speaking from his own experience and his message is that leadership in his community is not measuring up against the standards of a godly nation.
The threat, as Amos explains it, is that injustice opens them to conquest because God will not protect unjust leadership. One of the unfortunate realities of a feudal system is that for the peasants one overlord is as bad as another. Therefore Amos could well have understood that a population that is treated unjustly by its leadership is unlikely to rush to the defence of a ruling class that exploits them.
Furthermore the Hebrew people had a complicated system of laws that we find in Numbers and Leviticus. These laws were understood to be God given and applied to everyone including kings and other members of the ruling class.
These laws were the plumb line that Amos saw God holding to his nation and the point he was making was that just as gravity can pull down a wall out of plumb so injustice can destroy a nation. Injustice can make a nation vulnerable to external attack but injustice can also destroy a nation from within.
I recently saw a video clip of a multibillionaire who was imploring other mega rich people to take seriously the growing gap between rich and poor if for no other reason than, if they didn’t, the pitchforks would come as they had in the past. His allusion was to our recent history of a little over 500 years which witnessed the disastrous peasant revolution at the time of the reformation. That revolution was brutally put down by the ruling class. However the French Revolution, the American revolution and of course the Russian and Chinese communist revolutions not only resulted in massive loss of life but changed the way people were governed. Those western nations that avoided violence redistributed their wealth and that was the plea from the man in the video. He wasn’t suggesting they simply give money away but played their part in rebuilding a more just economy.
There was agitation for rebellion in Jesus’ time and indeed there was a rebellion put down and the temple destroyed.
However the gospels show Jesus continually distancing himself from any idea of armed rebellion. The riding the donkey in the acted parable in the Palm Sunday episode has traditionally been seen as Jesus rejecting the idea of a military messiah.
Instead Jesus is recorded as continually claiming the kingdom of God is at hand. There is a revolutionary strand in that proclamation that reflects the ancient Hebrew tradition that if God is king nobody else has the authority to exploit or enslave people.
In demonstrating how to live out that concept as a subject people of the Roman Empire Jesus focussed on a much more subtle form of obtaining justice. Jesus promoted an understanding of the total family of all humanity where all people are neighbours Jesus told stories and parables that offered a way of people caring for each other. The parable we read today sets a new understanding of neighbour that reaches beyond family and tribe.
It certainly moves beyond our understanding of neighbours as the people next door who play their stereo too loud and don’t trim their trees.
In a list of regulations in Leviticus it says: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)
That indicates that the neighbour to be loved is someone who is seen as ‘your people.’ If you read the rest of chapter nineteen it becomes even clearer that the laws relate to the way people are to treat members of their family or tribe. Verse 17 even gives permission to reprove your neighbour so you can complain about the stereo and the trees so you don’t bear a grudge because verse 18 prohibits that. However there is plenty of space to bear grudges against and even hate people who are considered as other.
Therefore in the multiethnic multicultural world of the Roman Empire the lawyers question was certainly pertinent. ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:29) The lawyer knew the law and Jesus complimented him on his legal knowledge. But as a lawyer he could see new complications for a people who were no longer isolated nomads. Are his neighbours still just family, tribe or even those of the same ethnicity? What about Romans, some of whom were supportive of his religious practises and even keen to join if the temple rules were more inclusive. Then there were the Samaritans, descended from those left behind during the Babylonian exile that had intermarried with other peoples and established their own worship sight. People who had objected to the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. They lived nearby but after such behaviour they surely could not be considered to be neighbours.
But of course it was a Samaritan in the story that exhibited the qualities that define a neighbour. That would have been a shock to Jesus’ audience and like all Jesus’ parables the story contains multiple challenges for a diverse audience. There are ethical questions about priorities as the priest and the Levite pass by. People have pointed out that the man was near death and if in fact he was dead that would render the priest and the Levite unclean and unable to perform their temple function without being cleansed through offering a sacrifice at the temple. As the man was stripped he had no tribal identification and therefore he could not be identified as having any ‘neighbour’ obligations. The story makes a good ethical case study as we ask questions about the choices a minister might make when he sees a drunk fall off a bicycle when he is rushing to take a funeral service with in excess of two hundred people waiting for him. What if the drunk is a teenage girl and a man tries to help her only to be accused of sexually assaulting her. The potential to expand issues from parable of ‘The Good Samaritan’ are probably endless but what we will settle for this morning is the realisation that being a neighbour is not about proximity or relationship but about behaviour.
The command the lawyer affirmed and questioned was to love your neighbour as yourself. Therefore a literary equation suggests that anybody who we love as ourselves is a neighbour. The parable tells us anyone who loves us is a neighbour to us and to be a neighbour requires loving action not just relationship or geography. The command in Leviticus concludes with the words ‘I am the Lord’ indicating a divine command. So this parable is a plumb line of neighbourliness a divine measure of lovingkindness that allows us to claim a place in the family of all humanity.
We don’t just learn that through the actions of the Samaritan that he was neighbour to the injured Jew. We also learn from the parable that the divine measure of lovingkindness and justice calls each of us to be neighbour to all people.
As God holds a plumb line to us as individuals and as a parish the parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that to be a neighbour involves the way we act not just our geography.
We are not just part of this neighbourhood because we are a church in this community.
We have to be neighbours through our unconditional lovingkindness to all and any of those in the community around us.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p254.
 Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), p. 149.