DO YOU HAVE A PLUMB LINE?
Imagine you’re building a house. You’ve dug the hole for the basement and poured the footings to hold the basement walls. When you poured the footings you tried to level them until they looked to you like they were straight and even. Now that the footings have dried, you are laying the concrete block for the basement walls. As you put in each row of block you look to see if they seem to be straight and level.
They look good according to your eye. When you put down the second row of blocks you try to carefully set them square on top of the first row so that the wall will be straight. Then you are very careful about putting in the third row, and the fourth, until the basement wall is finished.
When you step back to look at the whole basement, you realize that even though everything looked like it was square and even and straight it actually wasn’t. The wall on one side leans outward, while the wall on the opposite side leans in. The corners aren’t quite square so that as you look down on it, the basement is actually skewed in a clockwise direction.
In addition to all that the back of the basement stands taller than the front by at least five inches. Maybe the footings weren’t level, or maybe you put more mortar between the rows of the block along the back wall and not as much in the front wall.
Your house is going to be uneven, it won’t be square, and the walls won’t be straight. The bricks you put on top of this foundation will also be crooked and uneven. Because of all this, the house will be weaker and won’t last as long.
What you needed when you started the job was a plumb line. You know what it is – basically a string with a weight on the end of it. You hang it over the edge of the wall you’re building and it shows you where to lay the brick so that the wall will be perfectly even and straight. You also stretch a line over the top row of bricks that you’re laying to make sure they are absolutely the same height.
The plumb line is the tool that keeps your house square, even, straight, and true. It helps you build the house the right way so that it is strong. You never see a mason laying brick without a plumb line.
When we were building houses in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, they used a great, home-made plumb line. They had a wood piece that fits onto the corner of the bricks you were laying and it stuck out just a little from the wall. At the end of the string was a weight that hung down to give you a true straight line so that each row of bricks was perfectly even with all the bricks below. It also showed that all of the corners of the bricks were in a straight line. It was a very simple device, but it assured that the houses were built right.
In the Old Testament scripture passage, we read this morning the prophet Amos sees an image of God holding a plumb line. God is standing beside a wall with his hand outstretched and the line and weight of a plumb line hanging down. The implication is that the people of Israel have not followed the standard that God has set for them and because of that they will be facing difficult days ahead.
God’s people have not followed the plumb line that God has given them, but have decided to use their own judgment to decide what is right and acceptable. They want to build their lives using their own sight and perspective rather than use the plumb line of God’s will. It is as if God is pointing out that their walls are not straight and their corners are uneven. What they are building is not true.
So God calls Amos, who is not a professional prophet, but a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees, to tell his people that their lives aren’t being built right – they are weak, crooked, and uneven. They are out of plumb.
A major part of the problem is that people have too much. They are now prospering; they have done well, and their success has led them to forget the God who saved them. Now they are depending on themselves and their own judgment – what seems right to them.
They feel that they have done very well for themselves. They look at their own achievements and ask, “Why do I need to listen to anyone else? Look at how successful I am.” Their abundance has led them to revere their own abilities. Because of their success, it is difficult for them to hear the judgment that God is sending through his prophet Amos.
One preacher put it very well. “The text is an illustration of the idolatry of human power. When our sole focus is upon our own achievements and place in the world, we lose sight of where we are placed in this greater creation and who has placed us here. We pile up our resumes and our awards and our bank accounts and stand upon them, believing that they make us big. But what we stand upon is mere froth in front of God’s measuring plumb line.” (1)
Their success led to their failure. Because they were so pleased with how well they had done, they saw no need for the God who rescued them from slavery and gave them the plumb line of a true, honest, and just way of life.
When the Israelites pulled away from God, they pulled away from the principles God had given them. God sent Amos to set them straight. Amos showed them the plumb line God set as the standard and told them to come back to the values God had shown them.
Apparently, the abundance and success of the Israelites were at the expense of the poor and lowly. As we read through the Book of Amos, we hear him cry out again and again against using the weak and poor. Amos says that they “Sell the needy for a pair of sandals,” and that they “push the afflicted out of the way and trample the poor.” They have gotten their wealth by abusing the lowly.
They have forgotten the justice and compassion that God demands and therefore God is warning them that the end of their society is coming. Finally, Amos cries out “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice at the gate.” Then he summarizes his message against abuse and injustice in those well-known words, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
If you try to build a house by what looks even and what certainly seems to be square, you will fail every time. It will always be uneven, out of kilter, and crooked. Our vision simply isn’t that good. We need a better standard, a true measure to go by.
When we try to live by what seems to be working or what is successful for us, we can end up with the standards of money schemer like the insurance companies in the Caribbean or Wall Street manipulators. The ethics that God gives us demand fairness, equality, justice and compassion.
Amos’ call is to remember the plumb line God has set and to build by it: square, even, strong, and true.