Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 85:8-13, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29
The wonderful image of a plumb line: a standard of the upright, a measure of vertical rectitude, a gauge of righteousness! I have long admired this sculpture “The Plumb Line and the City” by Clark Fitzgerald, which is to be found in Coventry Cathedral.
A plumb line is a length of string weighed at one end with a plumb bob. The latter could simply be anything that is heavy enough to pull the string taught, but can be a beautifully created shape such as in this sculpture with a sharp point that allows the viewer to see with greater accuracy how true the plumb line is hanging. Plumb lines were first used as a practical tool to ensure that walls were vertically straight. Walls that are not vertically straight are likely to collapse and/or fall over. Amos is shown a plumb line in a vision by God with the warning that God has held the plumb line up against the people of Israel and found them well short of true. Much of the Book of Amos is taken up with records of how different peoples and nations have sinned – abused the poor, greedily taken more than their due, killed and murdered, despised the righteous – and have carried on sinning, continuing to live immoral lives, even though they have suffered the consequences of their wrong doing. The people, to whom Amos must prophesy, seem ‘hell-bent’ on ignoring their plight, complacently living as if their actions will never be judged. But they have been judged by God and have been found to be astray of what is true. They are like a badly built wall that is listing and is about to come crashing down. It is a message that even the priest at Bethel doesn’t want to hear.
This second half of Psalm 85 tells us of all the benefits that come from aligning our lives with God: peace, salvation, righteousness and faithfulness, mercy, and a plentiful harvest of good things. The focus of this Psalm that these benefits pertain to a people, to a community, rather than just an individual. Often we think of wrong doing and judgement in terms of the individual rather than the community. Maybe it is a western focus or a modern focus; it is certainly one that is made manifest in the question ‘Have you been saved?’ and in the ideal of the ‘self-made man’. But as we know, ‘no man is an island’ and (as Covid has so clearly taught us) no one is free from the repercussions of the actions of their fellow compatriots.
The passage from the letter to the Ephesians is also about ‘we and us’, rather than ‘I and me’. The letter goes on to talk about Christ being the head of the church which is his body. If in the Old Testament to be an Israelite is to be part of the House of Israel, then so it is in the New Testament that to be a Christian is to be part of the body of Christ.
The plumb line is not measuring the trueness or uprightness of an individual, but the trueness of a whole community, be that a local community, a city or a nation. It is certainly possible that one can have an individual who is entirely true and honest but whose goodness is overwhelmed by the falseness, the criminality, the carelessness and/ or deceitfulness of the social structures within which they live. That one person’s goodness does not stop the overall character of the community, city or nation being less than true. I think that is where we find ourselves today. We cannot hold up a plumb line against our nation and say that what is measured is true and right. We have only to look at the number of people reliant on food banks, the quality of treatment being dished out to the homeless, prisoners, and migrants, the growing differential between the incomes of those at the top and the bottom of the jobs market, the difference between the amount spent on fossil fuel subsidies and that spent on government support for green infrastructure – to see how far short we fall.
We have therefore a responsibility to be prophetic like Amos and to call out when we see that our government, our institutions, our businesses, our society, our churches, are not in line, are not true to God’s ways.