What is God’s Plumb Line?

A meditation on what Amos the prophet might say to the people of our time.

A plumb line is a wonderful tool.  It is a string with a weight on it, and when placed by a wall and the weight is allowed to hang down, it is readily apparent whether the wall is vertical or not.  If not, eventually the wall will come tumbling down due to the force of gravity.  As we all know and sense, gravity is an invisible force in nature that engineers account for when building structures. Many people might even curse it when they step on the scale in the morning.  There is no denying it, for when we do, the consequences can be disastrous.  Indeed, the brain does the calculus of gravity whether it knows it or not, or at least tries. (If you do not believe me, go shoot a basketball into a hoop, or putt a golf ball into the cup.  Even a cat can do the calculus required to always land on its feet). In the realm of the senses, humans are capable of discovering and accounting for the material forces in the universe.  When we do this, good things can happen.

There is another invisible force (if you will) in the universe that human persons are able to discern.  In examining ourselves and our powers, we recognize that there has to be something (or someone) greater than ourselves.  Just as the invisible forces and visible materials in the universe are discovered and measured through the disciplines of science, the invisible God who created all things is discovered by faith through revelation.  To the human mind and brain the workings of the universe are revealed to us, and to the human spirit the workings of the God who created it are revealed and discerned.  In both realms — sensory and spiritual — discerning what is revealed first requires a decision to receive the truth about it.  It is through this openness of heart that we receive the truth about God’s plumb line.

Throughout history God has spoken to prophets to reveal His good and noble purposes for His creation, and we encounter these stories in Sacred Scripture.  The concept of a plumb line was presented in the book of Amos.  Amos was a lowly herdsman when God called him to prophesy to his people (cf. Amos 7:18).  Israel and Judah were in a time of prosperity. Though they were at odds with each other, both were doing quite well in terms of wealth and peace with their surrounding neighbors.  If we were to think of Israel and Judah in terms of western society today, we might consider the United States and Russia.  Certainly there are differences.  The primary similarity to consider is that both powers consider themselves righteous and powerful.

Amos was from Judah, but God called him to speak to the northern kingdom of Israel. He was to warn the people that what they were doing was not according to the will of God — they were forgetting about His plumb line.  Amos was not to be an echo chamber of doom and gloom, but to reveal the consequences of deaf ears and inaction.  

This is what he showed me: behold, 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, “Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass by them; the high places of Isaac will be made desolate…” (Amos 7:7-9a).

Amos is warning the people that their behavior is not in accordance with God’s laws, though they may think that it is. Both Judah and Israel considered themselves God-fearing and just. They were enjoying so much prosperity, after all.  Unfortunately though, we are sometimes fooled in our fallen human nature, and we think that we are the reason for our prosperity.  We think that we deserve this prosperity, because we are chosen, or we work hard, or we are smart, or we are virtuous.  This list goes on and on. We forget that it is all a gift.  It is God who gives us our lives and our sustenance…along with His plumb line that keeps us safe and at peace with Him and with each other.  He gives, and then He says, “Here you go!  Enjoy!” (cf. Gen 2:1-24).

What could Israel have been doing that was so bad that God called Amos out of his blue-collar herdsman job in the south to go have a talk with the powers-that-be in the north? It is in chapter five of Amos that we get an idea of what was going on.  The entire social system is out of order.  Here are some examples that Amos gives: you trample on the poor (5:11a), you have built houses of hewn stone (5:11b), you have planted pleasant vineyards (5:11c). In summary, the Lord accuses Israel of neglecting those who are vulnerable: “you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:12b).

Building houses of hewn stone and planting pleasant vineyards are certainly great things to do, but as we see in the verses that follow, it was done on the backs of the poor and downtrodden.  It was done from the standpoint of one person’s (or group of persons’) power and wealth over another.  They kept things for themselves, and were even violent in doing so.  “’They do not know how to do right,’ declares the Lord, ‘those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds’” (Amos 3:10a). The consequence for this injustice is: “your strongholds shall be plundered” (Amos 3:10c).

The Lord wanted social justice.  He concludes the chapter five oracle, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). The Lord’s plumb line for justice, then and now, is the Inviolable Dignity of the Human Person. The way we treat others, (their personhood and livelihood), the way we use our wealth, and the policies we live by in our families, and that we create in our communities and governments, must be in accordance with God’s will for individual persons and for the common good.  But where do we draw the line, practically?  Should we draw lines that are plumb to “walls” such as economic or social considerations?  Political considerations?  In our pluralistic society, where does any person of good will draw the line?  An even more important question, in my mind, is where does a God-fearing person draw the line?

The truth of dignity tells us that this line is the person in front of us.  This is the simple truth that is known in the hearts of all people.  This truth is as true as the gravitational pull between bodies. Who could see someone hurting in front of them and not help them? “Who is my neighbor?” the expert in the law asked Jesus (cf. Luke 10:29).  Jesus proceeds to tell him the parable of the Good Samaritan. What would Jesus say to us today?  What would Amos say to us today? 

Today there are many unjust lines being drawn.  In our country there are persons who are trying to support their families and give them a better life, but are considered felons just by existing.  There are elderly or disabled persons who cannot get basic healthcare because of their age or disability.  There are families and children living in the slums around the world who have toxic homes because of environmental policies that are not enforced on those who have power or money.  There are babies in the womb, who are literally not only in front of us, but whom God has known before conception (cf. Jer 1:5), who have absolutely no right to live according to many in our society.  Have we, as a prosperous society, lost sight of all these persons?  

Perhaps as you read this you wish to place me, the author, ‘in the box’ of a particular political party.  This would be missing the point entirely.  There is a greater and more important box to be in — that of truth and justice and the will of our Creator.

Amos is speaking to all of us today.  As human persons who have been created in the image and likeness of God we have the capacity to look inside at our own action or inaction, our own prejudices and selfish desires.  Amos is challenging us to consider God’s plumb line, rather than the ones created by political parties.  The truth that another person’s dignity is fundamental is known in the hearts of all people of good will, and again, is as true as the immaterial laws of the universe.  The question is, are our hearts open enough to receive this truth?  Once received, are we open to the changes necessary, both personal and societal, to make God’s plumb line our own? 

Finally, how many of our high places will be made desolate before we decide to take action?

Here is a great video by Bishop Barron on Martin Luther King’s ideas of justice:

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