The Plight of the Prophet
The question I've been mulling over this week is, “Who are the prophets today?"I really wrestled with this, unsure even how we would identify a prophet. There are so many voices. So many speaking. Many speaking out against injustice and the broken systems that have failed us.
And this certainly is one of the characteristics of the prophets of the bible.
They were tasked with the challenge of being between God and the people. The job was to point out where the people or even the king had fallen short of being faithful. But can we say with any certainty which voices are prophetic and which are just promoting their own agenda?
It’s been said that we don’t have any clearly identified leaders in society today. And people don’t necessarily trust the leaders they once did. For instance, even clergy who were once among a trusted group, no longer hold that position for a majority of people in our country.
But not that long ago there were identified leaders. During the fight for civil rights, a number of strong figures arose. Of course, most famously MLK Jr. In South Africa there was Nelson Mandela. In India, Ghandi. Earlier there were Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas. Perhaps these were prophets among us.
One of the other characteristics of prophets is that they are of the people to whom they are speaking. So, in reality they are speaking to themselves as much as to their neighbors. In more recent times we might think more of movements than one particular voice. #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #NeverAgain, immigration rights and reform. Individuals from communities affected by injustice and violence, standing up and crying for change. Pleading for us to hear and act.
No one likes someone standing up and pointing out their issues. But they resent it even more when it is someone pointing out flaws they pretend are not their own. Though we see that the temptation is always to dismiss the prophets words. We will use whatever excuse we can to undercut the prophetic voice. In Jesus’ case the people use his familiarity with them against him. Isn’t this the little boy who used to play around the carpenter shop? Oh, isn’t it cute that he’s telling us about what God is doing! Who does he think he is really? Speaking for God!
It actually says they took offense at him. They aligned themselves against him because they could not hear the words he was speaking.
Prophets point to God’s action in the world. But mostly they demonstrate how the people are not ready to receive the loving action of God. The coming of the Day of the Lord sounds like something people would be looking forward to. But prophets warn that if God were to come right this moment, we wouldn’t be ready. That is the root of our brokenness as humanity. That we are not ready to receive the full force of God’s love and grace. It sounds crazy. Like, why wouldn’t we want that?! But it doesn’t fit our agenda to have everyone receive the same mercy, love and grace.
Even for people who say they want justice and peace for everyone. When it comes to those we perceive as opposed to us and our views, we have a hard time.
If we get back to the question of how to identify a real prophet, the truth is it shouldn’t be someone who wants the job. All the prophets of the bible resist the call to do this kind of work. They know that prophets suffer. They are hated. They are threatened and sometimes killed by the people they are trying to save. The prophet’s own body become the symbol of the rejection of God. That the people refuse to hear God’s call to repent in order to receive the hope and promise that will come.
When we think of some of the prophetic voices of the modern era we see this too. MLK was assassinated because of the very evils he spoke against. Nelson Mandela was jailed by the regime whose power he threatened. We should beware the prophet who hasn’t lost anything.
In Jesus’ case his prophetic work of speaking on God’s behalf became a Messianic role of giving is own body up to the forces that defy God. He realized in this experience at Nazareth that if his own friends and neighbors couldn’t hear it, then it would be hard for the majority of people to understand the coming Kingdom of God. If he was going to make it a reality it would be at the cost of his own life.
The work of prophetic speaking is no less relevant now than it was in biblical times. It’s also no less difficult. We are still the stubborn, impudent people who refuse to hear God’s call. But knowing this about us, God made a way that can’t be denied. A way that can’t be opposed or lost by our own refusal to hear. In Jesus the promise of salvation and hope is available to all people. Even the most stubborn and hard hearted among us. For people of faith the difficult part is accepting that without resentment. And living into it as a call on our own lives. To speak of God’s mercy and love even for those we can’t stand.