A Plumb Line
This is what the Lord God showed me; the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 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.”—Amos 7: 7–8
As every construction worker knows, a plumb line is a string with a weight on one end. Plumb lines are used by bricklayers and stonemasons as vertical guides in building walls. The line’s verticality remains constant whenever a builder needs to set a standard for a wall under construction.
In a remarkable vision by the prophet Amos, the Lord uses a plumb line as a standard for God’s people. It represents a plan, an ideal, a target toward which the people should aim their lives. God sets the standard, and the people are invited by God to live their lives accordingly.
The abiding question for us as individuals and as a nation is the same as it was for Amos: are we aligned with the plumb line held by the Lord? To answer that question, we first need to understand clearly the standard by which God judges us. Let us consider four options.
Option A: the Shema. Found in the book of Deuteronomy, Shema Ysrael is the most important prayer in the Old Testament, prayed twice daily by the faithful and placed in a mezuzah on doorposts. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” If we take the Shema as our plumb line, how do we measure up? Is God truly the Lord of our life, or is something else of supreme importance? Do our lives demonstrate that we love God with all we are?
Option B: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” These words come from the Old Testament prophet Micah in a time slightly later than Amos. The words of Micah are profoundly challenging, yet they offer a requirement of supreme simplicity—justice, kindness, humility. When we review what we have done with our lives, whenever did we do what the Lord requires? Before considering other options, let us recall that we Christians have a most vivid plumb line: the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. As Paul proclaims in his letter to the Ephesians, “With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Looking to what God has revealed in Christ, what might we choose as the essence of that divine revelation?
Option C: the Sermon on the Mount. This summation of Christ’s message is a radical challenge to conventional wisdom. It includes the beatitudes, in which Christ instructs us to “resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Christian pacifists have long embraced the Sermon on the Mount as their literal creed, believing that it forbids going to war or using lethal force. From time to time, I have tried to embrace this radical formulation as my own personal standard—failing miserably, of course. Even so, I have with me a daily reminder of that plumb line, rather like a mezuzah on the doorpost. On my right hand is a ring depicting the façade of my university chapel on which is a mosaic of Christ delivering the Sermon on the Mount. How have our lives as individuals or a nation ever reflected that blessed creed?
Option D: When Jesus is asked by the religious leaders of his day to identify the greatest of all the commandments, he replies with words repeated throughout these reflections: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. Here Jesus expands the traditional Shema, adding a horizontal dimension (love your neighbour) to the vertical one (love God). If these commandments of absolute love are our plumb line, how do we measure up?
Rawls, James J.. On the Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith. WestBow Press. Kindle Edition.