And the LORD said to me, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A plumb line." Then the Lord said, "Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel;”
Amos 7:8

The prophet Amos uses the ‘plumb line’ to inform Israel of Yahweh’s impending judgement against the nation because of its unfaithfulness to the Covenant.  When the plumb line was used to measure Israel’s straightness, the nation was found wanting. The prophet identified two problems that precipitated Yahweh’s judgement: a corrupt political system and a religious cult that had form but no substance.

The prophet spoke of a society that failed to practise justice and righteousness in its social life. He described how the rich took advantage of the poor, he spoke about the extravagant life of the affluent; he detailed the expensive homes of the rich and their ivory beds; he criticised a corrupt judiciary that denied justice to the poor and ruled in favour of the highest bidder; he drew attention to sexual immorality where a man and his son were intimate with the same woman; he condemned greedy financiers who took advantage of poor families and he was stern in his denunciation of the religious leaders who condoned the injustice that prevailed throughout the land.

Amos announced that because of Israel’s unfaithfulness the house of Jeroboam will be destroyed and Israel sent into exile. Amaziah the priest and a friend of the king objected to Amos preaching and informed the king that Amos was preaching against him and the state. He thought that Amos was unpatriotic, disloyal and a strife maker. He interpreted Amos’ criticism as an attack on the king’s policies, the religious cult and the status quo. Amaziah told Amos “go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there;” with these words he attempted to run Amos out of the city. But what is to follow was more disturbing: “but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” These are immortal words. In these words Amaziah forged a link between religious faith and political power. He did a great disservice to religion by using it to serve the interest of the state and not the interest of God. Yes, bethel might be the king’s sanctuary, but the king is subject to Yahweh who is King of kings and Lord of lords.

Amos was sent into exile. In today’s world we would say his work permit was revoked and he was deported.

Contemporary life is not far removed from what is described in the Book of Amos. How would our society measure up against the plumb line? How do we stand as a nation as we are placed against the plumb line of justice? If we are honest we will confess that some of the evils identified by Amos are still part of the landscape today. There is still corruption, oppression in its many forms, various forms of victimisation, injustice, oppression, sexual immorality, discrimination against poor people, class distinction. What is sad is that we claim to be a Christian community but yet it is rife with so many social evils. Amos blamed the religious leaders; they offered the sacrifices but they were part and parcel of the oppression.  The political leaders and the religious leaders were so wrapped up with each other that it was impossible for the religious leaders to speak to the political directorate about its departure from justice.

Today’s Old Testament reading has a message for the church and its leaders. It draws out attention to the problem that can arise when the church and the king lie in the same bed. Church leaders cannot fully endorse any one political system, organisation, ideology or philosophy. The only thing that is Absolute is God. When leaders publicly identify with any one political thought there is the risk that they will compromise their independence to speak to the king and to offer constructive criticism for the good of the people. Leaders who endorse any one system of government can have difficulties in exercising a prophetic ministry and betray their call to be God’s spokesmen. This was Amaziah’s problem, because of his close association with the king he was unable to speak to the issues of injustice for fear of offending the king and the establishment. Church leaders must be free from any loyalties to any political organisation or philosophy so that at all times they can stand in the market place and say to the king without restraint “thus saith the Lord.” They must avoid any kind of public activity or office that can convey a message of naked partisan bias. Their message will always be viewed with suspicion, doubt and skepticism.

Within the context of today’s readings priests and ministers should avoid membership in any political organisation or group, because of the grave risks involved and the fact that such membership demands of its members undivided loyalty. Very often the policies of the king are variance with the church’s values and leaders should not place themselves in situations where they have to agonise between choosing the king or Yahweh. Those who lead congregations are meant to be symbols of unity. Those who act like Amaziah and become partisan in their unconditional support of the king divide their membership and it can have a negative effect on their pastoral ministry. Today’s Old Testament reading is a warning to church leaders not to give blind allegiance to the king, it will lead to compromise.

Amos vision of the plumb line reminds the church of its call to witness and work for justice in society. The church has a moral responsibility to address the issues of injustice that affect the nation and to make God’s will known in every situation. People expect the church to lead and many of our people look to the church for guidance as the society grapples with the social, economic and moral problems that they encounter on a daily basis. There is a place for the church in our society; it has a unique contribution to make to the life of the nation because of its understanding of God’s will for mankind. As such, the church cannot escape its involvement in the life of the society, some would not want it to but it has no other choice. Because of its silence at times people see the church as an accomplice, an irrelevant institution or a body that lacks courage and fortitude. The church as an institution is not the problem, the problem lies with us its members who talk the talk but are unwilling to walk the walk.

As a witness of the kingdom of God in the world, the church wherever it is found has a duty to address the issues that go against Kingdom life. But as it exercises its prophetic ministry it must be impartial, honest, true and fair in its critique of society. It cannot be partisan, it cannot favour any one segment of the society, it cannot side with the forces of oppression and injustice, and it cannot prop up corrupt leaders and dishonest persons. If the church’s prophetic ministry is to be received it must always be mindful of the saying ‘what is good for the goose is good for the gander.” As it seeks to be true God, the society where it witnesses and itself it must always remember the words of Peter: “we must obey God and not man.”

The church must not be afraid to exercise its leadership role in the society. But we must always be conscious of the fact that as we speak as a church we are not politicians or social workers, but the people of God who see life in the society through the lenses of scripture and church doctrine.  But there is a price to be paid for the exercise of this prophetic ministry. Amos paid the price. We, the members of the Church must be prepared for criticism, ridicule, opposition and rejection. We will be called anti government, anti the establishment, anti society, anti this and that, some will say we are unpatriotic, disloyal, ungrateful, but we must not allow these criticism to silence our voice and divert our attention away from what matters. Anyone who wants to be true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ must accept that there is a price to be paid. A man said to Jesus "I will follow you wherever you go."  And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head."  Jesus also said; “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

At times it seems that there is an element of fear to be prophetic. Are we afraid to speak out against unethical business practices because we fear a loss of financial support of our fund raising projects? Are we reluctant to address the issues of injustice for fear that we might be victimised? Are we unwilling to denounce the immorality of our society because of the fear we might offend some people? Are we inclined to close our eyes to society’s problems because of the fear we might offend the king? Sometimes it seems that we have a fear of standing in the market place with the announcement ‘thus saith the Lord.” There is the fear of standing alone. Sometimes we Christians find it difficult to make a public statement for God because we fear we will be alone. We fear that we might offend people and institutions. But there is no need to fear when we speak and announce God’s will for the nation as we understand it to be revealed in the scriptures. We must not be afraid; we must speak the truth, but speak it in love.

Unfortunately, like Amaziah we have at times departed from our prophetic ministry in the society and have been unfaithful to God and our people. One gets the impression that our churches have lost sight of the prophetic ministry and are more interested in self image, personality trips, egos, money, the number game, cheap popularity, empires, the ability to walk in the corridors of power, fame and status, power and prestige.  The plumb line challenges the church to get back to its real ministry and to become once again a servant church that seeks justice and pursue it. The plumb line calls the Church to a ministry of justice and righteousness as it seeks to transform the political, social, economic and religious life of the nation. The plumb line asks the question who is on the Lord’s side as we exercise our prophetic ministry as Amos did.  The plumb line says our worship and cult practices are useless without the pursuit of justice in the society. Amos makes the point that worship without justice is useless and unacceptable to God.

"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:21-25.

The church’s mission is to help create a just society where every person can life a full life without suffering any kind of injustice that robs him or her of his or her human dignity. But this we can only do if we are faithful to God and not man.

As Christians we have a choice: Amos or Amaziah.

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