St. Andrew's Church of Scotland, Jerusalem
For the past year, my wife Elizabeth and I have been living in the Northern West Bank near the city of Jenin, in a small Christian village called Zababdeh. The whole district of Jenin is centered on its rural, agricultural life - people live as farmers, as shepherds. In many ways, it is a connection to the rural themes and parables of Jesusí time - the olive trees, the planting of the seeds. Near Zababdeh lies one of the great hidden treasures among the holy sites of this land - the village of Burqin is claimed as the site of one of Jesusí healings. In the 17th chapter of Luke, it says that Jesus went around to the villages of Samaria - that is, among the Samaritans, the northern half of this land - preaching and teaching and performing miracles. In one village, he came upon ten lepers and cured them. Only one came back to thank him. The Christians of Burqin worship in an ancient church believed to be the site of this miracle. The cave in the back of the church has a hole in the roof where it is said the food was dropped down to feed the lepers who lived there, eking out their existence in a primitive version of solitary confinement. Imagine being a leper in a Samaritan community. Already as Samaritans, you were considered lesser than the rest of the world. And within that community, as a leper, you would be considered marginal. They were outcasts among the outcasts. And it is to them that Jesus came.
This place in Burqin, our Scriptures today, and the newspaper headlines seem to underscore an unfortunate fact that little has changed since the time of Jesus. Our societies seem to almost intentionally structure themselves around ways of creating outcasts, out of ignoring the ones to whom God pays special attention. The ancient land Israel of the prophet Amos was no exception, as we heard in our reading today. To this former shepherd, this simple dresser of trees, God came with an image that has stuck with us over the centuries - the plumb line. The plumb line was, and is, a simple instrument used in construction. Itís a string with a weight tied to the end of it, using gravity to make a straight vertical line. The symbolism of such an image as God dangles the line before Amos is clear, that Israel must measure up to this straight line - it must build its walls of faith to these exacting standards. It must keep the covenants and commandments of the law and the promise. But it has already failed to do so, not many years after the triumphant reign of King David, and must suffer the consequences. It is Amosí lucky job, as the prophet, to inform the king of Godís decision: that the people of Israel donít measure up. Itís not a message that King Jeroboam wants to hear, but nor is it a message that Amos seems all that eager to deliver. He is quick to point out that the word is not his, that heís not the regally-fed and housed prophet that Amaziah, Jeroboamís mouthpiece, comes to represent. Instead, Amos reminds Jeroboam that the word he speaks comes from the mouth of God - it is God who holds the plumb line between a divine forefinger and thumb, not Amos. And it is Jeroboam who has led the people to build this faithless, leaning wall that appears to be crumbling. Ancient Israel failed to measure up, and in that way, of course, bears comparison with modern Israel. Or with my homeland, the United States. Or with most nations for that matter. Any system which is built upon the heads of the downtrodden, which casts out the outcast, or idolizes violence and power, any mechanism which is built upon any foundation other than that of grace cannot stand before the exacting building standards of the Divine.
You see, there is a burden that comes with power, particularly that of those who have been trusted with the fates of peoples and nations. Our own tradition bears witness to this idea - John Calvin, the French Reformer living in his own diaspora in Switzerland, included a preface to the King of France in every edition of his exhaustive Institutes of the Christian Religion. And each time he begged the King to repent of his repressive, faithless, leaning-wall ways. With power, he argued, comes responsibility. And with great power comes even greater responsibility - for a when a king or a queen, a prince or a princess falls, they take an entire people with them.
But weíre not just talking about royal figures or governments or militaries or even corporations here - but weíre not not talking about them, either. The Psalm we read together makes this point clear, for we as children of God hold an important place - we are gods, it says, more symbolically than literally. But we, too, standing before that simple measuring device, before that plumb line of Amosí vision, will fall just like princes. And our falls will have consequences not just for ourselves, but for others. Our imperfectly-constructed walls will crumble like sand, for no one can stand righteous before God. No one can claim perfection. No one can present themselves as flawless.
For many years, we have used the story of the Good Samaritan to correct our flaws, to use as our measuring stick, our plumb line. We have read this story for years, but it is always surprising to read it again and find how many details weíve invented. Itís a short story, a mere paragraph, but our imaginations - perhaps from Sunday School re-enactments as a child - add all sorts of things that arenít really there - the bandits hiding behind rocks, or that man lying in a ditch at the side of the road, the priest and Levite saying something smug and dismissive to the man. None of this information is there, but in our minds, to varying degrees, it is every bit a part of the story. This is why it bears repeated readings - not only to flesh out the details of the story, to figure out what is Scripture and what fancy, but also to see if we are really reading the story as it was really told and whether we are learning from it what was originally being taught.
This story for us has always been a morality tale, about that poor, innocent man headed down that steep, desert slope from Jerusalem towards Jericho, and the despised Samaritan - the one who mightíve been a neighbor of those lepers in Burqin - who proves more faithful than the religiously-precocious priest and Levite. I remember very vividly those early Sunday School lessons that taught my classmates and me this cautionary tale about judging people by the color of their skin, or the amount of money in their pockets, or any other humanly-instituted dividing wall (like whether they are Samaritan or Jew or Arab). And over the years, for most of us, the Good Samaritan has come to represent our drive to be moral, our faithful living in the kingdomís shadow. Churches have their Good Samaritan funds, as means to help those in desperate circumstances. Some cities and states in the US have now enacted Good Samaritan laws that oblige people to help those in distress or under physical threat - kind of a compelled compassion, we could call it. The good, saintly, kind Samaritan has become our plumb line, where we take our cue from his honorable actions and from Jesusí command to "go and do likewise," to help others. This has been the way we can measure up.
But thereís one crucial detail missing in this version - or rather, this interpretation of the story. The story is told because a young lawyer asks Jesus a question: "Who is my neighbor?" The answer to this question is the story, but at the end of the story it is Jesus who does the asking: "Who," he asks the neighbor, "proved to be the neighbor?" Jesus does something amazing and subtle in the telling of the story - he flips the question on its head. Notice the use of the word neighbor in the two questions. The lawyer wants to know who is his neighbor. His neighbor turns out to be the one who - in the lawyerís own words - "showed him mercy." Hereís the turn: at the end of the story, by the time we have come to respect this Samaritan, this outcast who lends a helping hand, Jesus in essence says to the lawyer, "You came seeking your neighbor. The Samaritan is your neighbor. Which means that youíre the one in the road. You want to know who your neighbor is? Heís the one who comes to you, salves your wounds with oil, and feeds your hunger with wine. You are not the one in a position to help. You are the one in need of help, whether you know it or not. Youíre not the one with the power to change your circumstance - you are the powerless one, relying on the goodness of a stranger and outcast to keep your going and your coming. You were left in the road, all but dead Ė but Iím telling you that today, you are alive!"
Friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ, we are the lawyer - we are the ones who lie in the road, whether by circumstance, or of our own doing. And it is Jesus Christ, the outcast among outcasts, who comes to us, picks us up, salves us with the waters of baptism and feeds us with the bread and wine of the Eucharist. We cannot measure up, friends - thatís the good news! But even so, Christ has called us by name, has gathered us here, and has bound us together. That plumb line, dropped in our midst, is the very cross of Christ. And so it becomes a way not to strangle us with our failures, but it becomes the way by which we cling to God, by which God holds us in grace. We have been pulled from the road, called from our olive orchards, our sycamore trees, our sheep, and have been bathed and nourished in the grace of Christ. We must see ourselves not as powerful, but as powerless before the perfect holiness of God. And when we do, we will see that we have not been left for dead in the road, ignored by the respectable, but we have been given a whole new life by the one who came for the outcasts - and thereby became an outcast himself. We must, we must go and do likewise, as Jesus tells the lawyer, because it has been done for us already. It is for this reason that we must stand before the thrones of the powerful and speak the truth of Amos. It is for this reason that we must stop along the road with the Samaritan and help the one who despises us. It is for this reason that we must go with Jesus to those rural Samaritan villages and give the gifts of healing - because it has already been done for us. And when we do, we do it not in an effort to measure up, to build more effective walls, but rather to acknowledge that this plumb line has become our very lifeline.
Do we measure up? Not even close. Our walls begin to crumble before they are even built. But the good news is that God comes to us anyway, calling us, holding us, surrounding us, and shaping us to be instruments of divine grace. May we, and the whole world with us, go and do likewise. Amen.