This piece was adapted from reflections delivered during Morning Prayer and Evening prayer, July 14 and July 16, respectively, in separate nursing home and prison ministries.
How do we square our lives with God?
This is one of the central questions of all theology. How should we live our lives so that we are “square” with God’s will and law?
In our reading from Sunday, in Amos 7, the prophet gives us an image of how God instructs us — and how He measures our adherence to that instruction:
This is what the Lord God 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.
I love the imagery of the plumb line here. If you’ve ever done much carpentry, you know how invaluable a plumb line can be. Held from an elevated point, the weight hangs down, showing the exact point that lies vertically directly beneath the origin. Gravity, a natural and ordering force given to us by God, shows where to place the foot of the next beam or block in a wall so that it will be “square with the world,” with a resulting right angle from the level, horizontal plane to the vertical.
If you build your walls according to the plumb line, they will be “square with the world,” and your house will be sound. If, however, you ignore the plumb line, your walls will be wonky, or, as my Mom would say, cattywampus, and eventually the house will fall under its own weight.
The same can be said of our “spiritual house.” When we set out to order our lives, both physical and spiritual, if we ignore the plumb line God sets before us, all we build will be askew. Wonky. Cattywampus. Off-kilter. Eventually, it will fall under its own weight. Amos warns King Jeroboam he is living askew from the plumb line, and there will be consequences: “‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.'”
But Amaziah, King Jeroboam’s priest of Bethel, tells Amos to not bother them with this plumb line business: “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
In other words, “If the king wants to live askew from the plumb line, who are you to question?” They are determined to ignore the plumb line. And then, because they are living out of line from God’s ordering power in the universe, some gnarly things happen:
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.'”
Yikes. This is one of those passages we have a hard time digesting with our contemporary sensibilities. Whoring out our spouses and killing our children — these are not literal outcomes we expect from God, reading this passage from a contemporary, allegorical stance. But, in a spiritual sense, our outcomes can be just as dire. All we build in spirit — which is, after all, the only part of us that lives beyond our physical frame — is flimsy and destined to fall is it’s out of square with God’s ordering power.
So, what is this plumb line? And what is the ordering power that shows us how to live “square with God?”
For the Jews, the plumb line was the law — a collection of 613 commandments (which no-one had any hope of fulfilling, save one very special itinerant rabbi). For us, as Christians, the plumb line became that very special itinerant rabbi. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus tells us he did not replace the law. He fulfilled it: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
At the cross, and in his ministry before the cross, and in His resurrection and Ascension after the cross, Christ became, becomes and ever will be our plumb line. He is the measure of how “squared away” are our lives — spiritual and physical.
So, how do we gauge this plumb line? How do we get our spiritual house square? This was essentially the question the lawyer used to test Jesus in Luke 10:25-37, the Parable of the Good Samaritan:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
If you want to live square with God, you have to love God, and love your neighbor. Simple enough. But, ummm, on that neighbor bit … surely that doesn’t mean everyone? Not that one person? Surely not them? The lawyer speaks the doubt in our own hearts, seeking some exclusionary clause, some loophole from this call to love: “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?'”
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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 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. 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.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a story of reckless, nonsensical, selfless love. A Samaritan traveling in Judea at that time could expect the worst kind of treatment from his Jewish hosts. Jews viewed Samaritans as dogs, and the Samaritan had every reason to believe this Jewish man, bleeding in the ditch, would beat him and revile him if he were able.
But, the Samaritan sets aside the selfish fears that gripped the priest and the Levite, and steps in to bandage, to care for and nurse, to provide for this enemy he’s found on the side of the road. The priest and the Levite, meanwhile, are Jesus’ reminder to us that those who should be the first to respond in love (that’s us) often are the first to succumb to fear, and go out of their way to avoid the need in this world.
This is a powerful parable. But, it is more than just a story. Jesus is pointing us back to that plumb line from Amos. Just as gravity is the ordering force that gives us the direction of the plumb line, Jesus is showing us God’s ordering force for the Kingdom of God in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. And it is Love.
Want to live square with God? Then, Love.
Love recklessly. Love with abandon. Love those in need, and those in plenty. Love those in power, and those oppressed by power. Love those who love you. Love those who would most likely hate, deride and beat you, if they had the chance. Pour yourself out in Love.
This does not mean we abandon common sense, or justice, in our dealings in the world. No, justice is essential to Love. But, we cannot live in fear. We cannot live in hate. We cannot pass by quietly on the other side. Like Amos, who saw a hurting, unjust and disordered world, we must leave our comfort zones, and hold up the plumb line of Love to the world around us. And, when the world doesn’t measure up, we must wade in, like the Good Samaritan, to cleanse the world and set it right, one broken traveler at a time, in Love.
Lord Jesus Christ, give us the strength and courage of the Good Samaritan, the wisdom of Amos, to measure this world by your Love, and when we find it lacking, to pour out ourselves as willing vessels of your Love and Grace into a broken world. Amen.