I thought we should begin with some backstory for this morning’s Old Testament reading.
The prophet Amos of Tekoa is the earliest of the so-called 12 minor prophets grouped together at the end of the “Old Testament”. He sets the model for prophetic ministry that is followed by all of his successors, including John the Baptist and Jesus.
Amos began his ministry around 750 BC: shortly after the first Olympics were held in Greece, and about when the legend says Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus. It was a time when the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were both at the height of their power, wealth and influence. Things were good – the borders are secure; people are getting rich; the land is at peace.
But then there’s Amos: a really gloomy guy, not someone you’d invite to a party! He was the first to prophesy what at the time seemed unthinkable: that the Northern Kingdom would be conquered and laid waste by the Assyrians, the survivors forced into exile.
Tekoa, which is we where are told Amos is from, is a Hebrew word that means “trumpet.” “Amos” means “brave” or “strong;” and that is what he was, a brave trumpet: proclaiming the word of God for all to hear, particularly those in power. (Even though they were too busy with the good life to want to hear it!)
Now, the entire Book of Amos is basically two long series of prophesies, with almost no other dialog or prose. The first set of prophecies ends in chapter 7, verse 9 from today’s reading. Then we have this short vignette where the King’s High Priest, Amaziah, misrepresents Amos’s words to the King. Amaziah then demands Amos return home to Judah, which he refuses to do. Instead, Amos defends himself and then launches into his final two chapters of prophetic gloom and doom.
And yet… Amos’s prophecies do not end in despair, but with hope. At the end of his book we read…
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
and they shall never again be plucked up
out of the land that I have given them,
says the Lord your God.
Like Amos, all of the prophets end on a note of hope for the future, despite all of the catastrophic events and dire pronouncements that fill their prophecies. This pattern is also seen in the Book of Revelation and in the Gospels. The Bible never leaves us in the midst of loss, failure and pain. So, don’t stop there! …As Winston Churchill is reputed to have said: “If you’re going through Hell, keep going!”
Today’s Gospel reading contains the well worn story of the Good Samaritan, told in response to the lawyer’s question of “Who is my neighbor?”
If you think about it, the Parable of Good Samaritan is simply the prophesies of Amos and his successors told from the inside out. Instead of warning of future catastrophes resulting from our refusal to love God and our neighbors, we have a man who is already a casualty – beaten by the robbers. The loss and suffering are already here: laying in front of us at the side of the road, just as Amos said would happen. The damage caused by those who do not love is already here.
Some good and respected folk witness this: the Priest and the Levite. They see the naked and battered man, but continue on their way as if he did not exist.
Then comes the Samaritan who binds up the man’s wounds and brings him to an inn to be cared-for.
The lesson of the parable seems obvious: don’t be like those whom we believe to be good: don’t ignore the problems, the hurt, the pain. Minister to those who are in need, even when it is inconvenient.
And yes, this is a valuable lesson, but the problem is that the story doesn’t end there. So, let’s think: Parables always seek to insert us into the story, and also to make us question where we are, and who we are, in it. So, who do each of the characters here represent?
The Robbers, the Priest, and the Levite are all well known figures in Jesus’ time; and he knows that his listeners: simple townsfolk, fishermen and peasants; do not see themselves as any of those three, because they have power, and the common people do not. So, since we are also part of Jesus’ audience, we are not intended to see ourselves as the Priest, nor the Levite, nor the Robbers. Thank Goodness! We’ve learned to see ourselves as the Good Samaritan, who ministers to the man. But, is this correct?
Jesus’ followers, like the followers of Amos and the other prophets, were being dispossessed by those who already had political and economic power: the rich and powerful are the robbers in Jesus’ parable, and were the target of Amos’s divinely inspired anger as well.
Who did the robbers rob? Not the Good Samaritan – he was an outsider, an enemy, not someone that Jesus’ audience could identify with.
No, those who first heard this parable saw themselves as the man by the side of the road: robbed, beaten, and left with nothing – just like them. That is who we are in Jesus’ story: we are those who are deprived of all we have by robbers that escape without being brought to justice.
Perhaps. But like I said, parables are intended to leave us guessing as to exactly where we fit into the story!
Amos’s book ends with hope. God restores that which had been lost: bringing the land and the people back to health and prosperity. But here in Jesus’ parable we don’t reach the full restoration foretold by Amos. Instead, we see the process of that restoration beginning. We see God’s grace and love working through the Good Samaritan to bring healing and hope to us.
But then again, maybe we are the Good Samaritan, because we know that the Holy Spirit is within us, working through us, to make the Kingdom of God manifest; just as it is working through the Good Samaritan.
So, perhaps we are the Good Samaritan; or, maybe we are both the Good Samaritan and the man. After all, the Body of Christ is the community of those who follow Christ’s teachings. And, the Holy Spirit works through each of us, to bind us together and to minister to others. Most members of the Body of Christ are strangers to us, personally – and may even be perceived by us as enemies; just like the Samaritans were. We learn here that being a stranger is not a bad thing, and doesn’t mean you can’t be a good neighbor. So, I suspect we are meant to see ourselves in both the Good Samaritan and in the man in need.
Now, in our reading from Amos, Amaziah doesn’t see himself in the story at all. His reaction is denial, the same as we see in many folks, even today, when confronted with uncomfortable facts. We do it ourselves. Amos’s reaction is basically “I’m not here for my health: God sent me, and denying what is happening won’t stop it from coming to pass!” He then launches into his remaining two chapters of gloom and doom.
An important metaphor in our reading from Amos is the plumb line: a sign that God is watching and will not forget us again; and an indication that Creation is ongoing, meaning that God must constantly measure with that plumb line to ensure that the end result of Creation, what we know as the Kingdom of God will come about in its intended form.
We also see, through this metaphor, that being under the watchful eye of God is uncomfortable. All of the things that we, and the people of Northern Israel, put our trust in: great cities and temples, abundant wealth, a strong military and police, weapons, are not sufficient. They will all fail. Amos says that the land will be re-surveyed, and restored to the people; and it was, just as Amos prophesied.
Jesus shows the restoration happening through the Good Samaritan’s stopping to bind up the man’s wounds; but also makes the point that the restoration does not end there. The work of building the Kingdom is not completed with his dropping the man off at the Inn.
He tells the innkeeper to “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Jesus is messing with us again: the Good Samaritan is no longer a stranger, and no longer perhaps us; but is perhaps Jesus, whom we know will return again. Or, maybe the Good Samaritan is all three at once: Us, the Stranger, and the Messiah.
Amaziah got stuck on the condemnations of Amos, and did not look for (or see) the hope beyond the judgments foretold. Jesus tells us that the Good Samaritan’s mission does not end with his handing off the man to another. Our journey with God never ends. God is always here. So, there is hope for the future, hope that will remain alive as long as we pursue the call upon our lives: to love God and love one another, without exception and without reservation.
And so, in this midst of particular week from hell, where there has been so much death and hate and evil and destruction and rushes to judgment, there is hope. We know it is a hope that will never die or fade away. We will not be left beaten and naked by the side of the road, alone in our pain and despair. So, don’t stop there: our work is not yet done, and our Hope will not die!
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, July 10, 2016.
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)
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