David C. Drebes
July 12th, 2009
Measuring up is the theme we hear about from the prophet
Amos. Writing 750 years before the birth
of Jesus, he tells us about a vision of a plumb line and what this meant for
A plumb line was used for building straight walls—next to the wall, you held a string attached to a weight, and then you compared them. For Amos, it was the equivalent of one of these [hold up a level].
So you try to get the bubble in the middle of the level. And in this metaphor, when you love your neighbor as yourself, when you worship God with all your heart and soul, and when your society lets justice rule, that means you’re level.
Amos’ message to the people of
Today’s reading comes to us from chapter seven, but in chapter two Amos writes that his people “sell honest folk for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals. They grind the heads of the helpless into the dust and push the humble out of their way.”
This is a me-first society, Amos writes about.
But they still worship God! That should count for something, right?
In chapter five, Amos writes a message from God:
“I spurn with loathing your pilgrim-feasts; I take no pleasure in your sacred ceremonies.”
The people knew how to be religious, but they were not faithful in letting their love of God spill out to those around them.
And even their court system was askew.
“You bully the innocent, extort ransoms, and in court push the destitute out of the way.”
Justice should mean fairness in courts of law, but justice was perverted in Amos’ time to benefit those who already had power.
And how do these harsh words of Amos sound to us? Two thousand seven hundred and fifty years later—in our country, we have not solved the problems Amos lists with his country.
We make strides in helping others—groups like Habitat for Humanity or Goodwill do a lot to help the poor.
Everyone in this building made the effort of coming to church this morning, and that’s a good thing.
And we do our best to make sure judges are fair and that laws are equitable.
But if the standard is a perfectly balanced society, then we’re still a long way off from that standard.
And part of the problem is that we have competing standards.
The people in Amos’ day weren’t trying to upset God—they were simply trying to do what they thought was in the best economic interest of their country. Money, was their standard. And if meeting that standard cost the lives of the poor, so be it.
When Amos tries to remind the king of God’s standard, he is cast out by the priest—who thinks Amos’ words of judgment are a sign of disloyalty. The priest’s standard is that he measures others based on how supportive they are of the king.
We see this problem at work in our Gospel reading as well.
We move now from Amos in 750 BC to King Herod and John the Baptist in 30 AD. And now the concern is less about money and more about precious honor. Herod has, in the sight of all his political allies, promised to his stepdaughter anything she wishes. Her mother tells her to ask for the head of John, a man Herod fears and respects.
Herod is trapped. He must kill this righteous man or he will lose all honor and credibility. According to the standard of honor, he has no choice.
We get trapped by these standards that compete with the good works God calls us to do.
Money and success immediately come to mind as traps. Those responsible for the economic meltdown last summer knew what they were doing—but it was profitable.
The standard of national loyalty crops up—no matter who is in elected office, legitimate critics of the government are too easily stamped with the brand of being unpatriotic or even treasonous.
Or how about the standard of popularity? I kept expecting that one to go away after high school—but it crops up in workplaces, in neighborhoods, sometimes even in churches!
When being popular and socially successful becomes the standard by which one orders their life—some bizarre things happen. One bizarre occurrence is the creation of a new word. Just this week, Merriam-Webster added the slang word “frenemy” to its dictionary.
A frenemy is a friend/enemy. If you have a frenemy, that means that you pretend to be friends with that person for your own gain. Maybe it keeps your job safe or maybe it maintains your popularity.
But it is not an honest word.
And it represents a very real trap. Who would choose to have a frenemy? It must seem absolutely necessary for someone to go to all the effort of pretending to be friends.
It’s a trap, right?
But just as Amos tells us about all sorts of human values competing with what God values, and just as we hear about King Herod being trapped by his misplaced values—we also have the story of another king.
In First Samuel, Chapter 25, King David swears that he will destroy an entire town because its leader insulted him.
“God do the same to me and more if I leave him a single mother’s son alive by morning!” David declares.
This is an oath, much like Herod’s.
But a woman named Abigail runs out to David before his attack begins, and pleads with him not to go to war over his own pride.
David is trapped—Abigail has pointed out his selfishness, but he has sworn to God that he will destroy her town. What is he supposed to do?
His sword is drawn, he’s ready to kill for his honor, but then he utters these words to Abigail: “A blessing on your good sense, a blessing on you because you have saved me today from the guilt of bloodshed and from striking a blow for myself.”
King David breaks his vow.
Unlike Herod, he chooses to preserve life at the cost of his own honor. All the pressures of his society would tell him to fulfill his vow—but thanks to Abigail, David remembered God’s desires for this world. To seek justice, to serve others, to love the Lord first.
I did not make up this comparison of David and Herod. Saint Bede in the 7th century beat me to it. But what I love about comparing these two kings is that both are foolish. Both of them make stupid oaths. Both were sinful kings.
Both David and Herod were stuck between committing murder or breaking a vow. We know Herod did the wrong thing, but the most we can say for David is he did the best wrong thing when he broke his vow!
But David broke that vow because he trusted first in the grace of the Lord, Saint Bede tells us.
David knew that God had called him His own—no matter what. Read his story. David committed adultery with
We see this expressed again and again throughout the entire Bible.
Moses told the Israelites when they wandered through the desert that God chose them out of love and mercy, not because they were great people.
“It was not because you were more numerous than any other nation that the Lord cared for you and chose you,” Moses told the Israelites, “but because the Lord loved you and stood by his oath to your forefathers.”
David knew that promise.
And the Church knows that promise too. Hear
“God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.”
What a beautiful picture of God we are receiving through
these ancient words. The same God who
The world is askew and full of peril. God calls us to be good to each other and to love Him, but it’s hard and we never seem to quite level out our own lives—let alone level out justice in our town or state or country.
But when you find yourself trapped in messes related to a skewed value of popularity, or wealth, or loyalty, remember the promises of our shared faith.
Remember that even if you lose your status on the social ladder—you are God’s child. Even if you lack the success of your neighbors in the big house, the God of the universe loves you. Even if your loyalty to your country or company is questioned when you speak the truth, you belong to the company of the saints.
Jesus Christ gathers his company. He has promised to meet us—he has promised to be our true friend no matter how skewed things may be in our lives. Let us prepare to meet him.