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; 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.”
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,
`Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’”
And Amaziah said to Amos, “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.”
Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, `Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” Amos 7:7-15.
One of today’s Old Testament readings in the Lectionary comes from the Book of the Prophet Amos. Amos came from the southern kingdom of Judah, and began his prophetic work around 750 B.C. (A few years later, the Northern Kingdom would fall to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.)
During this time, under the rule of Jeroboam II, the Northern Kingdom enjoyed great power and wealth. As is so often the case during such times, they neglected the poor and the downtrodden. They divorced their religious observance divorced from their sense of social justice and ethics. Although Amos came from Judah, he directed most of his prophetic message at the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
In this passage, God tells Amos that He will measure the people of Israel according to a plumb line. (The plumb line was an ancient engineering device, using a string, a weight and the force of gravity to determine whether a wall was straight.) Never a popular strategy, Amos brought the message of God’s disapproval. He announces the destruction of the Kingdom, the death of the king, and the desolation of their high places. In an apparent reference to the Passover (the meta-narrative of God’s salvation of the Jewish people), Amos reports that God will never pass by them again.
The priest Amaziah reports Amos’ dire warnings to the king. Rejecting Amos’ message, Amaziah apparently assumes Amos is a professional prophet, and tells him to go back home. The priest directs Amos to return to the southern kingdom and prophesy there, but Amos continues to proclaim his message of God’s disfavor with the king and the priestly caste.
Amos answers that he does not come from a line of prophets, rather, he makes his living as a shepherd and from agriculture. Thus, as opposed to the sanctioned, professional prophets of his day (who suggested that Israel’s prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing), Amos claims prophetic authenticity. Amos claims legitimacy through his status as an outsider. His message comes from God, rather than from the recognized human authority.
I wonder sometimes how willing we are today to have God’s plumb line held up to our country, or our churches. Would we be willing to listen to the prophetic voice, or like Amaziah would we tell him to go preach someplace else? Are we so addicted to the smooth and pleasing words of blessing that we cannot listen to God’s call for things to change?
It’s worth considering the notion that today’s religious authorities may be too closely allied with power. As Amaziah told Amos while shooing him away, “This is the king’s sanctuary and a temple of the kingdom.” Those words should terrify us, as we look at the perhaps too easy alliance between empire and ecclesia. I worry that too many of our churches have “Do Not Disturb” signs on their doors. Rather than cathedrals of conversion, have we erected sanctuaries of the status quo? Amos reminds us that God comes to comfort those who are disturbed, and to disturb those who are comfortable.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis