By Seminarian Jean-Pierre Seguin on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost:
I come before you in the Name ✠ of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
A plumb line may seem like an odd image for God’s justice. To start with, a plumb line was the ancient near Eastern version of a level: basically, an evenly weighted stone or some other material on a string. But it could show you that a wall was straight, based on Earth’s gravitational pull. A plumb line is not to be debated: your wall will be straight, or your wall will be crooked, depending on its measurements.
But in order to understand the full impact of Amos encountering a plumb line in a vision from God, we have to go a little bit further ahead in the chapter, because this is just the third image God has showed him. So in order to communicate the import of today’s reading from Amos, I’m going to share from the beginning of chapter seven:
“This is what the Lord God showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings). When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said, ‘O Lord God, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!’
The Lord relented concerning this; ‘It shall not be,’ said the Lord.
This is what the Lord God showed me: The Lord God was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land. ‘O Lord God, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!’
The Lord relented concerning this; ‘This also shall not be,’ said the Lord God.
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. 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; 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.’”
Now, interestingly, the text tells us directly of the reaction to Amos’ message. We are left to assume that after seeing the burning fire consuming the deep, Amos was convinced that he should bring this dire message to his people. The result is that the chief priest in Israel tells the king that Amos is conspiring against him.
And the King says, to go prophesy in the south. Your words are nice. I don’t want you to, like, be poor or anything, but just go tell those people down south that they better get their act together, because you can’t say these things in the king’s sanctuary. It’s interesting to note that the main objection is to saying these things in the king’s sanctuary. Because if you look at the first chapters of Amos, the people of Israel have strayed so far from their covenant with God: they have mistreated each other, they have followed idols, they have murdered each other, the gap between the rich and the poor has been growing; God no longer even cares for their sacrifices.
And yet when a dresser of sycamore trees is sent to say that the consequence will be exile, and the fall of the reigning house of the King, he has met with angry rejection. We see a similar dynamic in today’s gospel. Everyone is abuzz about who Jesus is, but oddly enough, King Herod gets closest to the truth. Not that he’s right, Jesus is his own person, but he understands the power of Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and ministry, in his own kind of backwards way. Because he acts, it appears, from a deep insecurity, an insecurity that leads him to listen to John, but then order John’s execution when, in a moment of weakness, it is requested of him.
And I don’t want to lay all the blame on the women of Herod’s court, again, marriage was not something about which women had a lot of say in this society, but everyone within Herod’s court acts the way Herod does, out of fear, out of jealousy, out of a desperate attempt to cling to power. And the result is that the prophet is executed.
It is interesting that in both cases, people choose not to hear, or to ignore, or only partially hear, the word of the one who comes speaking truth. Amos, as he defends himself before Amaziah, demurrers, saying he is but a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. Now in the Hebrew scripture, this connects him with a rich lineage. Moses was a herdsman for his father-in-law when he encounters the Burning Bush. His actions lead to the liberation of the Hebrew slaves and the downfall of a King. David is a shepherd when he is anointed King. God, we see in the Hebrew scriptures, has a habit of calling on those on the margins, those who are doing tasks others look down upon, who have time to listen.
Amos is a herdsman, he dresses sycamore trees, and God shows him a simple building tool, and Amos, following, trusting in God, goes forth, and tells the King that he will fall, that God will work with his people, but that part of this will involve exile. It’s not an easy word to hear, but it is an important one.
So for us today, as we encounter these prophets, these people who spoke truth, we must also ask ourselves, “What are the words that we knew deep down were true that we chose to ignore? Are there times when we are called to follow God’s plumb line and say that there are lines one cannot cross? Are we willing to sacrifice the prevailing order of the day to speak up for God’s justice?”
Martin Luther King is well known for the “I Have A Dream” speech and for a few others, but it is worth noting that when he was assassinated, he was planning a Poor People’s Campaign to occupy Washington DC and other parts of the country, that he was standing with striking sanitation workers, people who deal with the refuse of the city, and that he had spoken out against war, and that he had called what was patriotic “death dealing.” We’re all at different points, in different positions. We have different roles in society, some of us – we’re all called to different work.
But the example of Amos, the example of John, of the Blessed Virgin, of Jesus and the other Disciples tells us that, in those times when the authorities of this world have lost their moral compass, when society appears on the surface to be functioning but is filled with deep hidden suffering, we must speak out. And when we hear people speaking whose voices challenge us, perhaps make us angry, it may be useful to imagine, to remember, that they are sparing us from a rain of fire. That listening to God’s word, while uncomfortable, is worth the cost of avoiding the direction our own folly, individually and collectively, may take us. May we, dressers of sycamores in our own day, speak God’s truth. Amen.