10 July 2016
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10C (RCL)
Amos was not a polite man. Rage seldom expresses itself politely. Amos expresses God’s indictment of the various lands surrounding Israel and Judah, and a reader who believed that God had chosen Israel and Judah as God’s special possession would expect Amos to shift from indictment to consolation when her turns his words toward God’s chosen. Instead, he includes them in the list of indicted nations, and on the same charges: oppression and abuse of the poor and helpless. When, in God’s name, the prophet finally says, “You alone have I favored among all the families of the earth,” it is only to tell them that God will punish their crimes more severely, because they should have known better. Not what they would have wanted to hear.
As we come to the passage appointed for this Sunday, God shows Amos three visions. The first is a cloud of locusts who will eat up all the grass after the first (the King’s) mowing. After the people have paid their taxes, the locust will decimate their crops. Amos cries, “Forgive, O Lord God! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” God relents. Then God shows Amos a vision of fire that would consume the land. Again, Amos cries, “Cease, O Lord God! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” Again, God relents. The third vision is the passage assigned for today. Our translations read that Amos sees a wall built with a plumb line and God is standing by the wall with a plumb line in God’s hand. This translation is unsupportable. The original means something like “hardened metal.”
Amos sees a wall built of hardened iron and God standing with hardened iron in God’s hand. Amos does not beg God for forgiveness in this instance. God will lay the steel among the people, and attack the house of Jereboam with the sword. In the first two instances, the disaster would have engulfed the whole people, including the people who made their living from the land, those whom the powerful sell for a pair of sandals. In this instance, only the powerful will fall by the sword. The exile will only affect the powerful. Amos does not object.
When Amaziah, the priest of Bethel tells Amos to go prophesy in Judah, Amos claims that he is no prophet nor a member of the guild of prophets. He is a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees. He is one of those who would have been destroyed by they locust or the fire, but not by the sword. He can see things clearly because he lives next to the land which YHWH had chosen to people to tend. Rage seldom expresses itself politely, and Amos sees clearly the abuses committed by the powerful against the powerless.
The Gospel reading for this Sunday is wonderfully rich. A lawyer asks a question, which seems like a question about interpreting the law, but turns out to be much more complicated: What must I do to inherit eternal life? We hear this as a question about the minimal requirements of the law, but a little thought will reveal that one cannot do anything to inherit anything. One is either an heir, or not. John the Baptist has warned that the people should not rely on their lineage from Abraham, because God can raise up children of Abraham for the very stones. So the lawyers question is really about who is a member of the class “heir.”
Jesus replies to the lawyer’s question with a question of his own: What is written in the law? How do you read it? Here the lawyer gives the standard summary of the law, and Jesus commends him for answering correctly. But the lawyer, “wishing to justify himself” asks, “Who is my neighbor?” It is the phrase “wishing to justify himself” that is the key to the whole exchange. Who are the heirs? is the basic question, not “what must I do?”
Here Jesus tells a story, and it is a troubling story for many reasons. A man journeying from Jerusalem to Jericho falls among robbers or bandits, who beat him, strip him and leave him for dead. First a priest and then a levite pass him by, but a Samaritan sees him and takes pity on him. If the man had been dead (which he would have appeared to be), the priest and the levite would have been rendered unclean for seven days had they touched the corpse. The Samaritan has no such scruples.
A friend works downtown and recently saw someone talking on a cell phone step over someone who appeared to be sleeping off a bad drunk on a sidewalk downtown. My friend called the police, and later as she was leaving work, she saw the chalk outline on the sidewalk where the man had been. The story comes close to home.
I think a good way for us to understand how troubling this story would have been for the lawyer would be to substitute “Muslim” for “Samaritan.” The neighbor is the foreigner who cares for the man beaten by the robbers. When Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” he is asking two things of the lawyer: show mercy like the Samaritan/Muslim, and accept the care of the despised other. Who is neighbor is expanded far beyond anything the lawyer expected.
And another layer of complexity is added when we recognize that the vocabulary of this story points to Jesus’ own crucifixion. Jesus is crucified between two bandits. Mark uses the same word for robber as Luke uses in this story. Luke uses that same word when Jesus accuses the authorities of having made the temple into a den of thieves, and when he asks the crowd in the Garden of Gethsemane if they have come out against a robber with clubs and swords. The Samaritans have accepted the Gospel of the beaten man in a way the priest and levite have not. I suspect a story like this circulated early in the Christian community as a way of talking about the reception of the Gospel among Samaritans, and Luke found a way to use it here to challenge the notion that only the heirs would receive eternal life — to expand the notion of neighbor.