Proper 10

July 11, 2010
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Amos 7:7-17
Reading 3: 
Colossians 1:1-14
Reading 4: 
Luke 10:25-37
Alt Reading 1: 
Deuteronomy 30:9-14
By Russell Pregeant

The gospel reading could be combined with the Amos text to good effect in a sermon stressing the inclusiveness that characterizes God’s love and is hence required of those who follow Christ. The introduction to the parable of the Good Samarian in Luke 10:25-29 sets the stage as Jesus endorses the lawyer’s summation of the law in the dual love commandment. And the parable itself, combined with the conclusion of the pericope in vv. 36-37, provides a specific focus on the “other”—the outsider, the enemy, the unacceptable one—as the unlikely neighbor to whom one owes one’s love. The Amos text, precisely because of its emphasis upon God’s judgment, could be brought in as a means of indicting our contemporary society and/or church for failing to live up to God’s standards of inclusiveness.

To make this connection, it is best to treat the parable as it stands in Luke rather than in its probable original form as reconstructed by parable scholars. It is likely the gospel writer who brought it into connection with the account of the interchange with the lawyer in vv. 25-29 and who added vv. 36-37 also. By itself, the parable encourages the hearer to undergo a radical change in perspectives. As the story unfolds, a person knowledgeable of the biblical tradition of mercy toward those in need would expect the priest and Levite to extend that compassion to the wounded person and would be disappointed to learn that they did not. Thus, when the Samaritan—the hated enemy of the Jew—does so, the hearer’s moral universe is upset. To accept the logic of the story, one must pronounce the Samaritan good; but to do so is impossible—oxymoronic—in the culture’s standard way of thinking. And it is precisely this process of experiencing the disruption of one’s prior system of values that is the “point” of the parable, according to John Dominic Crossan, who classifies it as a parable of reversal. On his reading, to bring together the terms “Samaritan” and “good” is in fact to experience the presence of God’s Rule. Crossan argues that the parable in its original form assumes rather than teaches mercy as a virtue, and that seems to be the case.1 Nevertheless, we may still say that it conveys a moral point by breaking down the barrier between insiders and outsiders.

The parable in its original form may be stronger in conveying the radical disruption brought by God’s Rule, but the theme of inclusiveness is enhanced by the Lukan context, since Luke’s version tends to make the parable into an example story by the addition of the injunction to “Go and do likewise.” By placing the question, “Who is my neighbor,” as an introduction to the parable, the evangelist brings that theme to the fore in the very beginning. But then, as it turns out, Jesus actually reverses the question at the end. By asking who acted as neighbor in the story, Jesus complicates the issue. Rather than by making the point regarding inclusiveness directly, the passage attacks the issue by putting the hearer in an uncomfortable position. I might not want a Samaritan as my neighbor, but when a Samaritan acts in a radical, unexpected, and risky way to be neighbor to one of my “own kind,” then—just as in the original parable—my neat little world of insiders and outsiders is called into question. The injunction to “do likewise” of course applies to acts of mercy in general, but the use of the Samaritan as the paradigm forecloses any attempt to limit one’s mercy to those society deems acceptable. In the end, the original question is implicitly answered: all—without restriction—are our neighbors. Answered also, by the radical character of the Samaritan’s actions, is the unasked question of what love of neighbor means: it means risky, costly, self-giving attention to the needs of the other.

Amos stands in the Hebrew Bible as the prophet of economic justice par excellence. Because that theme is not explicit in 7:7-17, however, the passage can serve as a more generalized statement of God’s judgment on the one hand and God’s call to speak truth to power—and, more explicitly, institutionalized religious power—on the other. The meaning of the term usually translated as “plumb line” in v. 7 is uncertain. Donald Gowan notes that it “occurs only here in the OT and is now known to be the Akkadian word for “tin.”2 If that is what it means in this context, we are deprived of the long-standing reading of this text, according to which God measures Israel’s faithfulness with a plumb line and finds it wanting. What we are left with, in that case, would be a word-play similar to the pun we find in 8:1-3, where the word for “summer fruit” (qayits) sounds like the term for “end” (qets) and suggests that “the end” has come upon God’s people because of their neglect of the poor. In 7:7-8, the word for “tin” (anak) would call to mind ’anach or anaq, both of which mean “sigh,” and would presumably refer to sounds of distress in the face of God’s coming judgment.3 In any case, God’s speech in vv. 8-9 clearly pronounces judgment against the house of king Jeroboam.

The encounter between Amos and the priest Amaziah is a classic instance of institutionalized power attempting to intimidate a prophetic witness and of a bold prophet’s defiance. It is clearly the prophet’s message, as recorded in other parts of the book of Amos, that has provoked Amaziah’s wrath, and such disruptive preaching is of course a hallmark of Hebrew prophecy. As Walter Brueggemann comments,

These uncredentialed, authoritative speakers do not utter universal truths, but speak concretely to a particular time, place, and circumstance. They characteristically perceive their time and place as a circumstance of crisis, a context in which dangers are great and life-or-death decisions must be made. Or perhaps it is better to say that the appearance and utterance of the prophets evokes a crisis circumstance where none had been previously. That is, the prophets not only respond to crisis, but by their abrupt utterance, they generate crisis.4

We may therefore detect a similarity between Amos’s confrontational stance over against traditional religious authority and Jesus’ own. Jesus, too, provoked a crisis and came into conflict with institutional power. And we can see the seeds of social disruptiveness in the parable of the Good Samaritan insofar as it challenges not only popular attitudes but a sacralized system of exclusion. The Samaritan community stood outside the Jerusalem-centered ordering of reality in terms of clean and unclean. To suggest that a Samaritan is actually one’s neighbor is thus to challenge the system itself.

The meaning of Amos’s denial of his prophetic status in v. 14-15 is disputed, since the sentence can be translated in either the past or the present tense. If we choose the former, the point is that he was once no prophet but now is, on the basis of God’s call. The latter option would suggest that he is not a professional prophet5 or that he is dissociating himself from members of prophetic guilds (which may be what he means by “son of a prophet”). Either way, he is asserting an authority that comes directly from God, as we see in v. 15.

Process thought honors the biblical theme of inclusiveness through its emphasis upon the relatedness of all things in the universe as well as God’s all-pervasive presence. And its emphasis upon creative transformation provides a metaphysical grounding for prophetic witness directed toward the common good and the dismantling of unjust social structures. It is inherently opposed to all attempts to hang onto oppressive structures of any type for the sake of mere stability, since it recognizes that all creative change involves an element of risk and uncertainty. As Whitehead famously wrote, “The pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe.” By the same token, it recognizes that every future must grow out of the past and that creative transformation also preserves worthy values inherited from that past. A sermon on some particular dimension of inclusiveness considered controversial in some contexts might thus stress that a proposed change in values and attitudes need not undermine all aspects of formerly-held views. For example, a preacher might use the texts from Luke and Amos in order to address the issue of gay marriage. The prophetic dimension of both texts could serve as a challenge to let down the barriers that have defined same-sex oriented persons as outsiders but at the same time stress that the extension of equal rights is in fact a way of honoring the sacredness and importance of the marriage covenant. It is, after all, more than a little ironic to stress the importance of marriage for a stable society and then systematically exclude a portion of the population from this institution!        

1. John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 57-66.

2. Donald E. Gowan, “The Book of Amos: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 406.

3. Ibid., 407.

4. Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 624.

5. Gowan, 410.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).