When I was a little girl, an elderly neighbor was describing a project he was working on and he kept talking about a “plumb-bob.” I could not for the life of me figuring out how a piece of fruit could help him build a wall!
A plumb-bob, or as it is called in today’s reading from Amos a plumb-line, is a weight attached to a length of rope or twine or string, and it helps the builder make sure that the wall he is building is “plumb”—vertical and able to withstand the pressures on it without crumbling. If a wall isn’t plumb, it’s wisest to stop, deconstruct and rebuild it—otherwise, you’re just courting disaster.
In today’s reading, Amos reports that God told him that God is setting a plumb-line among the people to assess their strength and ‘true-ness’. Sadly, what God discovers is that they are not plumb, and then details all the ways in which they will not be able to withstand the challenges that are coming.
The young lawyer who comes to Jesus in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke is looking for a plumb line for his life, as well. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He wants to know what to do to keep the wall of his faith strong and secure. Jesus sees before him a lawyer, so he pushes the question back at him: What is written in the law?
And the man gives the right answer: 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.
Jesus essentially pats him on the head and says, “Good job, now go away.”
But the man is not satisfied. The text says that he wants to “justify” himself. I’m not really sure what that’s supposed to mean. Is he little peeved that Jesus seems to be blowing him off? Is he deeply unsettled that it doesn’t seem to be enough and he’s looking for peace from Jesus? Is he trying to make Jesus prove his own authority to be out there teaching?
So he pushes harder. “And who is my neighbor?”
Who is my neighbor?
Is my neighbor just the person who lives on the property abutting mine? Is my neighbor just the people in my part of town? People I see regularly? People who look and act and think like me?
Jesus answers this question with a story.
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. The young man and the people gathered around him will immediately understand that this was a Jewish man, someone like them. Maybe Jesus is saying that we can limit our “neighborhood” to people like us…
The man falls into the hands of robbers, is stripped, beaten, left for dead.
The crowd nods and murmurs, “Yeah, THEY aren’t acting like neighbors! Oh, the poor guy in the ditch. Good thing he doesn’t have to love them, right?”
But then the story continues.
By chance a priest comes along. Lest you have an image of a guy in a white collar, remember that this would be a Temple priest. Someone whose life is committed to preserving the holiness of the people through the sacrificial system in the Temple. Someone who had to scrupulously avoid anything that would prevent him from doing his job. An unidentified man in a ditch would definitely put him in danger of that; he might not be Jewish (he might be a Gentile or a SAMARITAN!) and he is definitely covered in blood. Best keep his distance. Feels bad, of course, but—what was he doing walking this road alone anyway? Practically asking for trouble. So he crosses the street to the other side to make sure that he doesn’t risk even his clothes making contact with this man. He passes by.
Next one to come along was a Levite, a man who is part of the Temple community and leadership. He too has to put his responsibilities ahead of any tendency toward compassion. He has to stay away. He too crosses the street and passes by.
Hmmm… thinks the crowd. Is Jesus saying that the priests and the Levites aren’t our neighbors? Do we not have to love them? We are confused, Jesus. Please get to the point soon.
Jesus goes on. Then a Samaritan came along. This young lawyer, this crowd of people are wondering, “Where are you going with this, Jesus? Samaritans can have no role in this story. Samaritans are beneath contempt, we avoid them the way that priest and the Levite avoided the blood.”
A Samaritan came along. And he is able to act with compassion, because he is not bound by a set of constricting religious laws like the priest and the Levite. In fact, the very thing that makes him an object of scorn and contempt—that they claim to be part of the people of the blessing but don’t keep the laws the way good Jews do—it is that freedom that allows him to actually DO something for this man.
He tends the man’s wounds with oil and wine. He bandages him up and then puts him on his own animal. He walks them to an inn, where he gets the man settled and pays for his care.
The crowd and the lawyer would be shocked by this twist to the story. A Samaritan as the hero of the story? It cannot be! A friend once pointed out to me that when Jesus asks his provocative question, “Who was the neighbor?” the lawyer cannot even bring himself to say, “The Samaritan,” and instead says, “The one who showed him mercy.”
So what is Jesus’ point in telling this story? Was he saying, “You have to be kind to everyone, to help people in need?”
If that’s what you take from this, and act on it, that’s okay. That’s a worthy plumb-line for our lives.
But that’s not really the point Jesus was making. Think again about the dynamics of this story. Jesus set the crowd up to identify with the Jewish man—the man in the ditch. The man who suddenly found himself without power and in need of help to survive.
And he finds himself helped by the person he can’t stand. He is forced to acknowledge that even those we cannot stand, those we hold most in contempt, are our neighbors. We have to love even them. And more provocatively, we can’t grudgingly love them from sense of superiority. We have to love them while recognizing that they are just as worthy as we are. Jesus is saying that they have something to offer us.
It’s stunning. It’s a completely different ‘plumb-line’ for life than that young lawyer was expecting to be offered. It was saying that his job is not to build up walls to protect himself. The walls are getting in the way of actually fulfilling the purpose of the Law, in the same way that it prevented that priest and Levite from showing even the most basic compassion. Jesus is saying that the Samaritan got it right in a way that the rest of them didn’t.
I had a number of different ideas about illustrations from our own time, and I am sure that you could probably come up with your own. You basically think about who you find least tolerable in the world, imagine finding yourself in their power, in their debt, and then love them.
For many, that might be a motorcycle gang. They are rough, loud, crude. They have a reputation for being violent and lawless. Not like a church group, right? A church group would be loving and kind and helpful and polite.
Except when the so-called “church” group is the Westboro Baptists, attempting to protest a military funeral, and the motorcycle gang is that group that goes and establishes a barrier, a line of resistance between their protest and the people grieving. The people who claim to be acting for God are shouting words of hatred and violence. The people in leather and bandannas are the ones showing compassion to the people who are grieving.
Which of these is acting like a good neighbor? Who is really showing the love of God? If God dropped a plumb line into that situation, which group would be found to be “true”?
Go and do likewise.