Proper 10B/Ordinary 15B/Pentecost 7
July 15, 2012
Those of us of a certain age have fond (sometimes hazy) memories of Pink Floyd’s psychedelic opus “The Wall,” describing a rock-and-roll protagonist’s descent into madness while trapped in a totalitarian state. It was, in some ways, the late 1970s/1980s equivalent of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” in that it was the theme song of a generation (X) alienated by the corrupt and increasingly authoritarian governments of Reagan and Thatcher, as well as with the soulless conformity and materialism of the 1980s.
In the Hebrew Bible reading today, the prophet Amos has his own “Wall” to contend with. According to the text, Amos was a prophet from the kingdom of Judah who came to the kingdom of Israel to prophesy against the king and the elite of Bethel, the royal city. At the time, Israel was a nation enjoying peace and prosperity. However, the prophet Amos earlier points out that this prosperity was attained at a high cost: “Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain … I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:11-12). It sounds remarkably like the “Greed is Good” ethos of the 1980s that fueled the savings and loan debacle and the “Keating Five” scandal …
In the reading, Amos relates a vision where he sees the Lord YHWH standing on a wall: “And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.’ Then the Lord said, ‘See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword’” (Amos 7:8-9). A plumb line was an ancient tool used to ensure that walls were built straight. The builder would stand beside the wall dangling a weight attached to a line, holding the line up against the wall. If the wall were not built straight, it would have to be torn down – and Amos is implying that this is exactly what will happen to the crooked nation of Israel if it does not change its ways (Israel eventually fell to Assyria in 721 BCE). The plumb line is the standard of the Lord YHWH’s judgment in protection of the poor against the predations of the wealthy and powerful.
What relevance does the prophecy of the plumb line have for us today? Oh, my. Where to begin?
I believe the central problem with government today is not that it is too big or too small. It is that – since the “Greed is Good” 1980s – the entire ethos of government service as a public trust has gone by the wayside. We have no more plumb line. It is not that there are more scandals or fewer scandals. It is that private gain and influence peddling have become such an integral part of governmental business-as-usual that we cannot even begin to see what is going wrong when it is staring us in the face. Many pundits were baffled at how the mortgage loan debacle and investment bank collapse of 2007-2008 could have happened. How could financial institutions that were insured by taxpayer money have been taking such great risks without anyone seeing that disaster was imminent?
The answer is simple: The system was owned by the people it was supposed to regulate. Investment banks contributed countless amounts of money to the election campaigns of politicians on both sides of the aisle. Investment banks hired high-powered lobbyists to “educate” those politicians and generously contributed their “expertise” to the crafting of the government regulations that were supposed to patrol them. The press readily deferred to their expertise on high-risk, arcane investment practices such as “mortgage derivatives”, because they were the only people that understood them. At the end of the day, we were left with millions of housing foreclosures, trillions of dollars in losses by investors, and millions of jobs lost in the ensuing recession.
Once, when I was visiting home, a severe thunderstorm suddenly blew up. I sat at the kitchen window watching, as the redbud tree that had been in our yard since childhood swayed once, twice, then blew over flat. The next day, when we went out to survey the damage, we discovered that the whole tree-trunk was honeycombed with tunnels eaten out by big, black carpenter ants crawling all over the tree. It had been eaten out from the inside. It was a miracle that the tree was standing upright to begin with. All it took was one big gust to blow it over.
The Lord YHWH has set up a plumb line in our midst. Let’s not be that tree.