In the Book of the Prophet Amos there is an account of an intense confrontation between Amos the prophet and a man named Amaziah, a priest at the royal temple at Bethel.
Something of an outsider, Amos has come from the southern kingdom of Judah to Israel, the northern kingdom under King Jeroboam, to pronounce judgement and impending disaster upon Israel, primarily because of the way the elites have been mistreating the poor, while themselves engaging in outrageous self-indulgence.
The image of the plumb line is meant to symbolize Israel’s crookedness, and the prophet has arrived to straighten them out. Amaziah, the priest of the royal temple, comes across as a hack, justifying their abuses of entitlement and their empty religious practices, and rejecting the voice of God spoken by Amos.
Amaziah seems to have lost his perspective – he no longer sees things from the point of view of God, apparently because he’s been blinded by the perks of privilege. For him, it’s all about protecting the establishment. He no longer even hears the cries of the poor – all the people who are being oppressed by this top-heavy system in which a few live in great luxury while others, as Amos says, have their faces ground into the dust, because they are being stepped on by the rich.
The relationship between Church and Crown has always been a tricky one. Bethel was a temple of the kingdom, and we might reflect that the Church – the Anglican Church especially — was itself once the temple of the kingdom, in the era we now refer to as Christendom. For hundreds of years, the Church enjoyed the official support of the state and had an active role supporting and shaping the community’s life – having our prayers used in the school system, saying grace at significant gatherings, blessing battleships, and sharing token celebrations of Christmas and Easter. These were aspects of the culture that, if you were part of the mainstream of society, you absolutely took for granted. And yes, part of that history included royal chapels, and chaplains for queens and presidents and dictators alike. As St Paul said, it is not easy to be in the world, but not of it.
It was a kind of partnership, as long as the Church went along with the direction society was going. Like Amaziah, we weren’t ever expected to criticize anything, and until the late 20th Century, the Church basically went along with the notion that Western civilization was in a real sense the worldly manifestation of the Kingdom of God. In this sense, we were indeed much more like Amaziah than like Amos.
Yet when corporations were in the early stages of bullying communities into Sunday store opening; when school and community activities started to spill over onto Sunday, and religious holidays began to be ignored, and we knew that these steps were sure to compromise our place in the community, most Christians made no response whatsoever. We stood by helplessly and watched, because we ourselves had already “bought in” to a great degree, and we were not used to speaking out against our own communities. We were so used to thinking that this was somehow a Christian society, that we had almost entirely lost our prophetic voice.
Now, we can’t get an ear from the powers that be, whether to save our life or the community’s. Government officials routinely ignore our perspective, our opinions, our phone calls – and act as if we’re not even part of the landscape. The partnership is definitely over. As Jesus, said, you cannot serve both God and Mammon.
The Church for its first few centuries of existence converted the rich and challenged the powerful, and the effect of the early Church, as described in the Book of Acts, was to turn the world upside down. And the Gospel writer Luke (who also wrote Acts), has a way of telling the Gospel story that emphasizes that dimension – of the tables being turned – of big surprises and unlikely outcomes, especially for those who choose to oppress the poor, while claiming to be representatives of God.
Jesus, when asked by a member of the educated elite what he needed to do to get into the kingdom of God, told a surprising story about a man being beaten and robbed by criminals – and then being ignored by members of the elite of his community – levites (lawyers) and priests – and finally being rescued by a foreigner, a member of a suspect religious group.
A priest and a levite, both custodians of Jewish culture and tradition — these are the best people! Surely they’d be the first to help? Well, apparently, not so much. We can see from the reading from Amos that it becomes relatively easy for people in positions of privilege to lose their sympathy for those outside the inner circle – to stop identifying with them or feeling any sense of responsibility at all. So the fact that the priest and lawyer pass by is no more difficult to understand than our own eagerness to avoid encountering a homeless person in downtown Vancouver.
The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most quoted in the Bible and yet perhaps the most misunderstood as well. It is not just a case of Jesus urging the man to try a little harder to be a good person – what Jesus is pointing to is way more profound and radical (as you might expect from one tuned in to the Spirit and wisdom of the universe). According to Luke, Jesus tells this story just after making a comment on the downfall of Sodom and Gomorrah, and saying that the really great insights are often hidden from the great – from the allegedly wise — and given instead to infants – newcomers, outsiders, the disenfranchised, and in this case, foreigners.
Some forms of Christianity have taught that we should tiptoe through life, desperate not to make a mistake or stray from the familiar path, and part of the wisdom of the Good Samaritan story is that it teaches us that we often learn our greatest lessons through our own mistakes and trials. When we are down and out – when we suddenly find ourselves on the outside — at such moments we learn that the conventional institutions and wisdom are limited and provisional – they are sometimes tragically bigoted and mean-spirited – and they inevitably fail us and abandon us. It’s a real eye-opener when it happens – and you can imagine that the man rescued by the Samaritan would never have perceived things the same way again. He’d be re-thinking his place in the scheme of things.
The priest and lawyer – good boys to a fault, no doubt – are so eager to avoid imperfection, so preoccupied by their official agendas, that they move quickly by the man in trouble, still secure in their illusion that life is about not getting your hands dirty or doing anything that might raise suspicion.
The two are symbolic figures – they are symbolic of Jewish religious practices and Mosaic law, and they are symbolic of how our great institutions can fail us – how they set up expectations and standards but eventually end up losing their original focus and simply existing for their own self-perpetuation. An important aspect of the Way of Christ was a wariness about institutions, which can become so preoccupied with self-preservation that they become closed to further development and to the real needs of people. The Church has certainly not been immune to that tendency.
Your insurance company will continue sending you cheerful brochures about the great relationship you have – until you’ve run into trouble and had a couple of claims – and suddenly they don’t want to know you. We’ve all seen the ads that show what great friends our banks are, but if you suddenly find yourself in a difficult situation and bounce a couple of cheques, that is, when you really NEED some help, see what happens to your friendship – see how generous they are then. No Good Samaritan there either! Indeed — who really IS my neighbour in this confusing and conflicted world? Is there such a thing any more?
I will never forget the man who told me about being let go from his executive level job in the oil business, after a takeover or some sort of shake-up with the company. After months of trying to find work, unsuccessfully, he was standing out in his front yard one evening watering the flower bed, when he saw an old friend and his wife riding by on their bikes. He called out to them, and they appeared not to hear him. He called again – again no response. He was literally chasing them down the road, with them pedaling faster and faster, before he realized what was going on. Like the man left by the road, it’s when you’re down that you find out who your friends really are. Ironically, the experience helped him find his way back to God and a whole new perspective on what’s really important in life.
And now that we the Church have been robbed of our glory and our influence, betrayed and abandoned, left for dead by the side of the road by the elites of this world, where does that leave us – and what are we to do?
Well, I would suggest we do as Jesus did, and as the Church did for the first few centuries of its life – we proclaim the sovereignty of God and we enable people to come to know God in a real and not token way – we tend to those wounded and broken and cast aside by the powerful and by the unjust rules and corrupt institutions of the world with their false promises of care and concern – and we make an effort to serve as something of a conscience toward the powerful, so that they see the world around them not just in terms of economic exploitation. We become a place where all who wish to live by the rule of love are welcome, and where people can discover, as did the man left by the side of the road, that you can find good friends in the most unlikely places.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
RCL appointed readings for Pentecost 9
Amos 7:7-17 This is what he 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.’ “Now therefore hear the word of the LORD. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” 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.'”
Psalm 82 God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods, God holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!
Colossians 1:1-14 I, Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit. For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Luke 10:25-37 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.” 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.”