Of all the mysteries of early Christian witness, surely John the Baptizer is one of the most beguiling. Even Herod feared him. This is “fear,” we might presume, that takes the form of intrigue, awe, awareness of a power greater than appears, and perhaps even respect. King Herod “deeply grieved” the death of John, but like a figure whose top priority is to maintain his own power, he chooses to bear sorrow over his failing rather than lose stature in the eyes of others.
Who among us is not more like Herod than like John? What do we protect in order to hold onto temporal – and possibly corrupting – desires? Who among us does not grieve the results of our failings?
What plumb lines in our own time do we ignore in favor of another goal?
Both Amos and John the Baptist held up visions of truth that confounded their hearers – except for the people for whom God’s justice meant life rather than death, forgiveness rather than shame.
Today's Gospel reading narrates in flashback style the story of an Amos-come-lately of more than 800 years later (equivalent in years to the time from the days of St. Francis of Assisi to today!) who also dared to speak God's plumb line truth to those in power and was made to suffer for it. Some, it seems, were beginning to think of Jesus of Nazareth as a kind of John the Baptizer redidivus, for the same “powers” were perceived to be “at work in him,” leading some to see Jesus as a latter-day Elijah or another of “the prophets of old.” For conventional religionists of the day, prophets were thought to be a phenomenon of the past—and the farther in the past the better. King Herod (with what we can assume was a guilty conscience) led the way in jumping to the conclusion on hearing reports of Jesus that it could only mean, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” – John Rollefson
The eighth-century prophet Amos saw a vision of God standing beside a wall, plumb line in hand. This vision presents a vivid picture of God's sense of righteousness (also known as “justice” or simple “rightness”) by which Israel's actions are to be measured and thus judged. The history of God's chosen people, Israel, is one rife with acts of crookedness, that is, decisions and behaviors that “fall out of plumb” with God's expectation of justice.
Prophets of the ilk of Amos, an alien farm worker with no prophetic pedigree, found wielding God's plumb line an onerous, unrewarding task. In the case of Amos, it meant having called down upon himself the priestly judgment of Israel's religious establishment: that he was at the heart of a conspiracy against the very king of Israel. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, spoke more truthfully than he knew, like countless spokespersons for establishment religion after him, including a certain high priest named Caiphas, when he announced of Amos, “the land is not able to bear all his words.” – John Rollefson
The real conspiracy in all this (“conspiracy” meaning literally a “breathing together”), our reading from the first chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians reveals, is God's: that “in him (Jesus Christ) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (v 7). That is, the blood and gore of the story of Israel's rebellion against God's Word and God's Word-bearing prophets, exemplified most brazenly in Israel's political, economic, and religious elites' [failure] to live… in conformity to God's plumb line of justice, is transfigured through Jesus' blood and righteousness into the story of all humankind's redemption. – John Rollefson
The stories of Herod and John and Amos, tell us that God’s way is not about who has the power or prestige. God’s way is that of Christ, the final plumb line, refusing to play the game, blessing those in need.
Thank God for that plumb line. Without it, we could do anything we wanted and call it truth, just as though we didn't know any better; and it would mean that God had abandoned us to the consequences of our own devices, and we would be lost. – John E. Smith
John Rollefson is a former pastor of Lutheran Church of the Master in Los Angeles, California.
John E. Smith has served as a United Methodist pastor for many years.
Homily Service 42, no. 3 (2009): 70-78.