07/10/22 – The Measure of Love


July 10, 2022
The 5th Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 7:7-17; Luke 10:25-37
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Paul’s letters to the Christian congregations started to give us a picture of the struggles they faced. He wrote letters back to the churches he started in response to congregational concern over ecclesiastic and spiritual matters. For the past two weeks, we have heard passages from his letter to the Galatian church in which there were significant conflicts. Paul wrote encouraging words with gentle corrections in most of his letters, but in Galatians, he was none too subtle in his disapproval and censure of their behavior. A few years back I saw an image on Facebook of Paul at a writing desk with his head in his hands, and a look of frustration, as he looked down on the world today. The meme attached read: “Lord, I don’t even know where to begin with these people!”

Paul faced the same kind of problems the ancient prophets did. The prophetic books of the Old Testament, and the Hebrew scriptures, chronicle the history of the Israelites’ struggle to be a nation among other nations. Navigating the political, economic, and social issues, while being faithful to God proved to be extremely difficult. When Israel teetered on the brink of moral disaster, God commissioned prophets to bring Israel back to the plan. The Lord’s frustration and anger with the people of the Northern kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE prompted Amos’ call to deliver God’s warning.

By this time Israel had become divided into two kingdoms. In their zeal to become a powerful nation, the movers and shakers of the Northern kingdom had lost their moral compass. It wasn’t that the powerful and privileged didn’t know how God intended them to live, they knew God’s law; and they understood the intention of the law, which was to be the foundation of a peaceful, just, and loving community. As God’s chosen people, the Israelites were to be a model for all nations, who would want to emulate them and worship their God. Unlike pagan societies, which exemplified self-gratifying individualism, the Israelites were to ‘love their neighbors as they loved themselves.’ (Lev.19:18)

The book of Leviticus, with its over 00 laws, served to spell out the specific applications for the 10 Commandments. In today’s legal lingo, the 10 laws were “overly broad,” so people were constantly looking for loopholes so they could break them. Moses explained how ‘loving your neighbor as yourself’ applied to harvesting crops: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.” (Lev. 19: 9-10) It was simple: if you had more than you needed, you should give from your abundance to those who had less than they needed to live. The harvest was a gift from God. Also, the laborers in the fields should not be forced to work long hours seven days a week by the landowners. They too were entitled to rest. These laws provided a clear understanding of right and wrong for God’s people.

But in building a nation the Israelites followed a different set of rules than God’s. As Israel had grown and prospered, she had begun to imitate the pagan nations around her. Hoarding wealth created power for a privileged few while leaving others in a desperate struggle for survival. A plentiful harvest became a commodity to be exploited and weaponized rather than providing sustenance for a community. Israel had become a nation in which there was prosperity for a few and poverty for many. For those with the most resources life was good – the stock market was up, and the jobless rate was down. While the slaves and common folk had plenty of work to do, they didn’t make a living wage for the labor that made the fortunate few wealthy. The wealthy and powerful made a big show of their religion, but they were not living according to God’s laws. Their prosperity was not shared with those who did not have enough. It wasn’t even trickling down. Israel’s foundation was crumbling. Religion and society were corrupted by materialism and the worship of other gods.

Amos was a wealthy man. He, apparently, owned land in both the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel. The text tells us he also owned livestock and fruit trees to sell for a profit. God called Amos out of his life of comfort and security to deliver warnings to the wayward Northern kingdom. The book of Amos consists of five oracles, or prophesies, against the northern kingdom of Israel. The passage we read this morning is the third of these five prophesies. The one before contains the passage made famous by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement in the ’60s: “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

In the passage for today, Amos is speaking to King Jeroboam’s personal prophet, Amaziah. As we have seen in the past, sometimes a president having a personal religious advisor can create a distinctly unholy alliance. Rev. Billy Graham said that one of the greatest regrets he had was becoming awed by the personal power of being Richard Nixon’s religious advisor. It led to some rather un-Christian words being taped in the Oval Office. Evangelical Christian leaders became political sycophants in the Trump administration, a president who unashamedly claimed Jesus was wrong to forgive his enemies at a National Prayer Breakfast. Amaziah was more concerned with keeping the king happy than living his faith by speaking the truth. We have heard many examples of this behavior reported by witnesses in the current House January 6 hearings. In this third prophecy, Amos tells Amaziah that it is already too late. Things in Israel have gotten so bad that nothing will save them now from God’s wrath. As it often is with government leaders and the people who elect them, Amaziah complained: ‘We don’t want to hear the truth, it’s too much to bear!”

Amaziah didn’t shoot the messenger, but he did tell him to get out of Israel and go back to Judah where he belonged. ‘Go speak for God to those people and leave us alone. We’re just fine here, thank you very much.’ They rather enjoyed the comfortable wall they had raised between their faith and their desires for their nation. But God’s justice demanded that when you hang the plumb line against a wall and you find it isn’t straight, it has to come down. Now it was time to tear down the system rigged in favor of the wealthy and powerful so that “justice” could “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Israel refused to follow God’s law of love. Their future was their nation destroyed and its people exiled to live under the rule of another nation.

In our gospel passage for today a lawyer comes to Jesus to seek truth – but not really. The lawyer is actually hoping not to hear the whole truth, he’s looking for a loophole to avoid it. This lawyer was not a secular lawyer but a man who was an expert in Jewish law. He asks Jesus what he can do to earn eternal life.  Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” These are not the same question. What is written in the law is the actual wording. Jesus asks a very different question: “What do you read?” Jesus is asking the lawyer how he interprets the law. That is where the real issue for the lawyer lies. The lawyer responds with citing the words from the Torah: “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.” That is what is written.

Rabbi Jesus tells him: “do this, and you will live.” Now here’s where the lawyer reveals what is really in his heart.  He wants to be considered a worthy Jew, but he wants to hear that there are limits to what he might have to do or to sacrifice to keep the law. So, he asks that all-important question: “And who is my neighbor?” Now he wants to get into an interpretation that he hopes will let him off the hook.

What the lawyer really wants to know is: ‘Can I just love my friends and acquaintances? Can I just love Jews, well my group of Jews, or do I have to love Samaritan Jews too? What about Jews that break Jewish laws and become unclean, do I have to love them too? Do I have to love Gentiles? Just how far do I have to go with this love?

Jesus’ answer is the parable of the Good Samaritan. If you remember from a recent gospel reading from Luke, Jesus and his disciples have just left Samaria where they were not welcomed. Yet, Jesus uses a Samaritan in his parable as an example of one who has shown love to a stranger in need. Two religious leaders walk to the other side of the road and pass the man who has been robbed, beaten, and bloodied. These hardline keepers of the law justified themselves by following the law that prevents them from touching someone who is bleeding, which would make them unclean and, thus, unable to enter the temple to lead worship. They justified their unloving, merciless actions by hiding behind the words of one of the 613 laws in Leviticus. Yet, they ignored the all-encompassing law of Leviticus that states ‘you shall treat your neighbor as yourself.’

Jesus shined a light on the darkness that was in the lawyer’s heart. Jesus wasn’t going to let him justify his own bigotry and self-interest with a legal loophole. This parable challenges us to think about the people we exclude from our compassion. The man lying hurt on the road might be a Muslim – we can’t stop, he might be a terrorist. He might be an African American male – we can’t stop, he might try to kill us. Feed this man who has no money – not me, he probably wasn’t really robbed, he just doesn’t want to work. Give this man shelter – no, no, he might be a foreigner and we don’t want people who don’t look like us and follow our customs in our country. Bind his wounds so he can heal – no way. If he can’t afford medical care, he doesn’t deserve it. Sorry, Jesus tells the lawyer, there are no loopholes in the law of Love.

Would our society pass Amos’ plumb line test? What would our answer to Jesus be if he asked us how well we are treating our neighbors? We can separate the church from the state if the Supreme Court would follow the original words and intentions of the authors of our Constitution. But the Bible tells us we cannot separate our faith in God, in Jesus Christ, from our public lives or even our private thoughts – now there’s intrusion for you! God sent Jesus to be intrusive in our private lives, and in our public ones. Not so we can judge others and control what they do, but so our own behavior will be loving and just. God sent Jesus to break down the walls that divide us and to dismantle the political, social, and economic systems that cannot pass God’s plumb line test no matter how many ways we try to bend God’s moral imperative – trading one injustice for another or worse, creating more injustices. God has shown us what is good, not just for ourselves, but more importantly for our communities, our nation, and God’s world. The plumb line, the measure we are to use is love, the love Christ demonstrated for us. This is the way we measure our words and our actions to keep to the straight and narrow path Christ has walked before us and invites us to follow.

Amen. May it be so!



© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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