In one of the most arresting images in biblical literature, Amos says that God stands in the midst of the people with a plumb line. Builders use a string with a weight on the bottom, a plumb line, to determine whether a wall is vertical and straight. Less subjective than eyeballing the wall, and governed by the cosmic force of gravity, a plumb line is an absolute measure. God stands in the midst of the people with an absolute measure for their deeds, and Amos quotes God saying that because of this measure he would destroy both the religious and political establishment of Israel. Amos does not say God is thinking about destroying Israel—he is going to do this. God is not into tough love, for Amos. Justice is the order of the day.
We do not like this harsh “Old Testament” God, believing as most of us do that God is loving, rather the way we dream our mothers were loving. Often we think, or hope, that divine judgment is nothing but God’s efforts to get us to do better. Yet there is something very important in the plumb line image. Who and what we are before God is our absolute identity. No excuses. No extenuating circumstances. No promises of doing better tomorrow. Moreover, divine judgment is not something to come later, postponed by a long life. As Amos says, God is even now holding the plumb line in the midst of the people. We live before God absolutely every day of our lives, whether we know it or not. One of the earliest heresies in Christianity, call Marcionism after its founder Marcion, said that the harsh God of the Old Testament was evil and that Christian should believe only in the SuperLoving HighGod. Marcionism was quickly condemned, however difficult it was for Christians to reconcile the God of judgment with the God of Love.
A profound reason exists to pay attention to the God with the plumb line. Unless we are held responsible in an absolute sense for who and what we are, we have no self, as our colleague Peter Berger would say. If we relativize ourselves with excuses from the past, or promises for the future, we ourselves turn out to be personally absent. Our moral self reduces to the conditions within which we live, the influences of others upon us, and the limitations of our bodies. Although of course, we live within such conditions, influences, and limitations, our moral selves consist in what we make of them. Our moral selves develop through time, maturing from childhood, with many starts and stops, with repentance and promise of doing better. Yet who we are at any time, indeed who we are over our lifetime, is what we make of ourselves within the conditions, influences, and limitations given us. This is our true self, our true identity, our soul, and we comprehend this only when we imagine standing in absolute perspective before God, who is in our midst with the plumb line.
The Christian gospel is that divine judgment is not the whole of the story, and it is not the whole story for Amos and Judaism: the God of justice is also the God of mercy. Among the most important elements in the development of a moral self are the occasions in which we respond with repentance before God and with gratitude for mercy. Sometimes we imagine God to be in time because our true selves develop in interaction with the ultimate divine perspective. Yet imagining God to be temporal, to be a being within time, always runs the risk of domesticating the eternal majesty of the God who creates time itself. The true absolutely ultimate God before whom we become our true selves is the eternal God within whose plenitude we live as temporal beings with eternal life.
Jesus was asked, according to Luke, what one must do to inherit eternal life. He did not answer with a metaphysical discourse on the eternal God, which you were afraid I was about to inflict upon you. Rather, Jesus turned the question: What does it say in the Bible? The questioner, a lawyer, answered by citing the line from Deuteronomy 4 that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, combining this with the line from Leviticus 19 that you should love your neighbor as your self. “Right,” said Jesus. When Matthew and Mark tell this story, they put the lines from scripture in Jesus’ mouth, not that of the lawyer. It must have been Jesus’ central teaching about the law and justice.
According to Luke, the lawyer did not let the matter lie, but questioned Jesus about who his neighbor was. Commentators suggest that he meant to limit his liability by circumscribing those who counted as neighbors. Jesus responded with the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. You know the story. A man was badly mugged while traveling to Jericho and was left by the side of the road. Two religious people came by, a priest and a Levite, who had religious responsibilities to all the people of Israel. They did not want to get involved and passed by on the other side of the road. A Samaritan came by who pitied the man, took him to a hotel, tended his wounds, and said he would pay for the man’s recovery. The lawyer, when questioned, said it was the Samaritan who had been the neighbor, and Jesus “said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”
Jesus’ point, of course, was that the people with the ethnic and religious obligation to the victim were not real neighbors. The real neighbor was the Samaritan who was ethnically as well as religiously alien. In fact, relations between Jews and Samaritans were worse than alienated, they were hostile. Athough he was himself an observant Jew, Jesus had little patience with ethnic or religious differences. As Luke pointed out in the text for last week, Jesus took his mission to Samaritan as well as Jewish towns. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus talked with a Samaritan woman, which was forbidden, offered her the water of life, and told her that religious differences make no difference when God is worshipped in spirit and in truth. Jesus healed Canaanites and Romans also. Although he was slow to come to this conclusion, ethnic and religious identities did not count.
What counted for Jesus is loving people. St. Paul in Romans 13 and again in Galatians 5 says that loving neighbor as self sums up all the law. The epistle of James says the same thing. The Gospel of John does not cite the line about loving neighbors from Leviticus, but it argues even more forcefully that Jesus’ work and identity was to teach people to love one another despite difference that would justify indifference or hate. Love is the very center of the Christian gospel, and it was recognized as such from Jesus’ time down to today.
With respect to divine judgment, then, the inference seems clear. What is the plumb line by which we are judged? For Amos, it was the law, and for Jesus and the Christians it was love as the summary of the law. In fact, where law means social and religious patterns that distinguish one group from another, as was clearly the case in much of the Torah, love trumps those differences. Jesus relativized the law, in the sense of religious patterns, to faithfulness to love.
Who are we before God? We essentially are lovers, good lovers or bad lovers. People who do not make lovers of themselves in the midst of the conditions, influences, and limitations of life have no self. No soul. Actually, that cannot be quite right. Everyone is held responsible in ultimate perspective, even if people utterly fail at responsibility. So we should say that everyone has a self or soul: the worry is whether it is happily loving or wretched, blessed or damned. Our eternal life depends on how we are lovers, said Jesus.
To love our own kind is easy, especially when they love us back. The Samaritans and other aliens teach us to love in the hard cases. Like the Good Samaritan, truly responsible lovers are those whose love extends to thos
e who are alien to them, especially those whom others have failed to love. We learn the hard lessons of love when aliens, from whom we should expect indifference or hate, love us instead. Thank God for aliens!
Now according to Jesus, we are to love God, as well as neighbors, with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Who, for us, is more alien than God? How can we love the eternal creator whose plumb line holds us in judgment? How can we love the creator who gives us conditions of life filled with war and poverty, influences from people who would warp the soul, limitations of disease and death, all the ambiguities of the sometimes fell environment from which we present ourselves to God?
Some people say we love in trade. Because God loves us, we love God. Yet God’s ordinary treatment of human kind is very mixed, loving benefits yes, but also indifference and sometimes hateful punishment. We can no more liken God’s true love as creator to a human lover, such as the Good Samaritan, than we can think of God’s eternity as the time of a dialogue partner. How hard it is for us to appreciate that even the hardships, suffering, and death of life, especially innocent life, are the creatures of a loving creator! Yet there is some sublime loveliness in the Creator that transfigures all these considerations. The one who holds the plumb line and calls us to account can become our beloved. We do not love God by willing to do so. What we will is that God help us. Yet by learning to love the unlovely among our neighbors, we can attain that integrity of self, that maturity of soul, which lets us take God as our lover.
Charles Albert Tindley, the great African-American hymn-writer, understood this subtle transformation: we begin by crying to God for help and end up becoming God’s lover when help fails. We’ll shortly sing his extraordinary hymn, Stand by Me. It starts with nature’s brute forces: “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea, thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.” It moves to human struggle: “In the midst of tribulation, stand by me. In the midst of tribulation, stand by me. When the host of hell assail, and my strength begins to fail, thou who never lost a battle, stand by me.” Then to personal failings: “In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. When I’ve done the best I can, and my friends misunderstand, thou who knowest all about me, stand by me.” Then oppression and enmity: “In the midst of persecution, stand by me. In the midst of persecution, stand by me. When my foes in war array undertake to stop my way, thou who saved Paul and Silas, stand by me.” Tindley knew that God does not calm all seas, protect us from all defeat, reverse our failures, or give us all victories. The most fortunate among us just get old. Verse five says: “When I’m growing old and feeble, stand by me; when I’m growing old and feeble, stand by me. When my life becomes a burden, and I’m nearing chilly Jordan, O thou Lily of the Valley, stand by me.” Readers of the Song of Solomon know that the Lily of the Valley is the beloved, not a champion, but the beloved. Somehow Tindley moved from demanding that God behave like a Good Samaritan to singing that God, his Beloved, receive his love. To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength is to be able to take God as our lover. As we come closer to the Lily of the Valley, we also embrace the plumb line in our midst. Amen.