Amos is dealing in livestock and tending mulberry figs, both fitting tasks for his later election. Tending a flock requires dominion, and dominion includes prudent and measured correction. Mulberry figs must be pricked in order to sweeten and deliver their blood-red juice. Animal husbandry and horticulture are ripe with love and wrath. Amos is going about his quiet life when the Lord calls him. Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you; I, God Almighty, have. Speak to my people. Interpret visions.
Amos sees a plumb line suspended from the mud wall of a city. The Lord speaks: “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by” (Amos 7:8). “Behold, I am with you always, even to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20). More suggestive yet: “I will be with you all the days (day by day) until the end” (Greek). The great contemplative, Thomas Merton, photographed a plumb line with a hook at its bottom. The plumb line hangs just above a distant horizon, the foreground showing the farmland of Gethsemane. He titled the image “The only known photograph of God.” The image and the thoughts it evokes are as consoling as they are haunting.
Consider: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” (BCP, p. 323, emphasis added). A plumb line hangs over the heart, to be sure, but it also hangs over God’s covenant people. God sees each and all. The divine image remains, but the likeness is horridly impaired, which is why the petition continues, “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit.” “Cleanse” accurately translates the Latin imperative Purifica, to which may be added a secondary meaning: to expiate, atone for. Something is deeply wrong. “Through the inspiration” is, again, accurate enough, but a literal translation of per infusionem would be “through the infusion,” which suggests that something is being done to every nook and cranny of human existence. It is being done by the Holy Spirit, that is, by God. God is infusing the heart, all desires, every secret — purifying, expiating, and atoning for what is wrong, namely, the ancient disaster called sin. This is done by the Spirit, often called the Spirit of Love. This is nonetheless divine judgment because it is the painful and difficult and loving and forgiving Truth.
Amos, inspired by God, sees observant and scrupulous cultic religious practice utterly void of compassion for the most vulnerable. The Psalmist captures his spirit: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3-4). Amos warns that “the high place of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (Amos 7:9). God is the judge of nations and shall be until the end of time.
Are Christians and Christian nations under judgment? Yes, as the Collect for Purity makes clear. Thus, even while rejoicing that the Risen Christ is present in his power, there is still sin to repent of and moral progress to me made.
We have a hope laid up in heaven. Yet love and judgment say may you “be filled with the knowledge of God,” “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him,” and “be made strong with the strength that comes from his glorious power” (Col. 1:9-11).