The Prophets: So What?

A lecture given to the St. Raphael Church CREEDS Bible Study
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-13 | Matthew 23:1-15, 29-39

The prophets were all very strange men, it seems. Probably the reaction to them was a little like what we might experience if someone came running up the front aisle of Church on Sunday hollering all kinds of crazy things. We would all probably be a little frightened at first, then confused, and finally a little embarrassed that someone would make such a scene in a public setting. I imagine that’s how the prophets were probably received early on, although they were probably more common in those days. I don’t mean to suggest that all prophets were nuts, although there might have been some of that. And the culture seems to have been more used to prophets in those days, more so than they are now. Sometimes, it seems that people were more annoyed by prophets than anything else. They were strange men, they went against the grain, but we believe they had an important message.

What I’d like to do in this talk is to paint a picture of who the prophet was. What was he like, and what purpose did he serve. Then I want to talk about Jesus as a prophet, and finally reflect for a time on why today we need to have prophets among us.

I. The Prophet

So let’s begin with the call of the prophet. We might like to think they were all immediately responsive when God called them, but the evidence proves this not to be true. There was nothing romantic about the prophet’s job. We can see that in the reading from Isaiah that we just heard. We tend to get all warm and fuzzy about Isaiah’s call right up to the point where he says “Here I am, send me!” But the second part of that reading indicated that his ministry was not destined for wild success. He was to say to them: “Listen carefully, but you shall not understand! Look intently, but you shall know nothing!” And this kind of thing would go on right up to the point where the community was destroyed: “Until the cities are desolate, without inhabitants, Houses, without a man, and the earth is a desolate waste.” On hearing that how many of us would leap to our feet and cry out “sign me up!?”

The same was true of the prophet Jeremiah. Many people, at their ordinations (yours truly included in that), pick the call of Jeremiah for the first reading. Here’s what it says:

The word of the LORD came to me thus:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
“Ah, Lord GOD!” I said, “I know not how to speak; I am too young.”
But the LORD answered me, Say not, “I am too young.” To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
Then the LORD extended his hand and touched my mouth, saying, See, I place my words in your mouth!
This day I set you over nations and over kingdoms, To root up and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.

That’s beautiful, isn’t it? It implies such a close relationship between God and Jeremiah that God would give him the words to speak and Jeremiah would accomplish great things. But here’s the part we all leave out of those Ordination readings:

The word of the LORD came to me with the question: What do you see, Jeremiah? “I see a branch of the watching-tree,” I replied.
Then the LORD said to me: Well have you seen, for I am watching to fulfill my word.
A second time the word of the LORD came to me with the question: What do you see? “I see a boiling cauldron,” I replied, “that appears from the north.” And from the north, said the LORD to me, evil will boil over upon all who dwell in the land.

From the very moment of the prophet’s call, he is told that his words will be essentially without effect. It’s no wonder there wasn’t exactly a great line of people waiting to be chosen as a prophet. In fact, most of the prophets were to some degree or another unwilling to take the call. Moses protests he is not a great speaker, Jeremiah complains about being too young. And let’s not forget Jonah, who was so offended by the call to preach to the Ninevites – the same Ninevites who could rot in hell as far as he was concerned – that he jumped the nearest boat to anywhere but Nineveh and ended up swallowed up by a great fish. It’s a little like being called to be a bishop today. The guys who jump at the offer are usually not the ones who should be doing it, and the ones who would be really good try to avoid it for everything they are worth. Being called to be a prophet was a frightening thing, and one can understand the reluctance of those called to answer the call.

Much could be said about the prophet’s situation, from a political and social standpoint. It’s a bit different for each prophet, depending on when they were actively preaching, but the theme is essentially the same. The kings of Israel and Judah were bad; actually they were rotten to the core. Some were better than others, but generally they are portrayed in scripture as evil, corrupt, and prone to lead the people to false worship and callous disregard for those in need. This started with King Solomon, noted for his humble prayer for wisdom and his building of the temple. But not long after that, we are told he came to love “many foreign women” who turned his heart from the Lord. After that, it all went downhill, with every king worse than his predecessor. A couple of generations into the mess, Abijah, the son of Jeroboam became ill. He sent his wife to consult with the prophet Ahijah, and this is what he was told:

Go, tell Jeroboam, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I exalted you from among the people and made you ruler of my people Israel. I deprived the house of David of the kingdom and gave it to you. Yet you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with his whole heart, doing only what pleased me. You have done worse than all who preceded you: you have gone and made for yourself strange gods and molten images to provoke me; but me you have cast behind your back. Therefore, I am bringing evil upon the house of Jeroboam: I will cut off every male in Jeroboam’s line, whether slave or freeman in Israel, and will burn up the house of Jeroboam completely, as though dung were being burned. When one of Jeroboam’s line dies in the city, dogs will devour him; when one of them dies in the field, he will be devoured by the birds of the sky. For the LORD has spoken!’ So leave; go home! As you step inside the city, the child will die.” (1 Kings 14:7-12)

So, in short, there was no dearth of things for the prophet to preach about. But I want to step back and take a look at the situation of the prophet as part of salvation history. From the point of the Fall in the Garden of Eden, God has been separated from humanity by a vast chasm of sin and death, what one of my professors in seminary – whose diagram I am borrowing for this part of the presentation – used to call “the deep, dark yogurt of sin and death.” The people were unhappy, to be sure, because they were deprived of the ability to commune with God, and they had no hope. And if they were unhappy, God was even more unhappy, and he often tried to do something about it. That was the whole point of the prophets, and they tried desperately to preach to those who were immersed in the whole deep dark yogurt thing. Time and time again, free will would cause the people of God to turn away from him. But they couldn’t say they hadn’t been warned.

Indeed, the prophet was on the hook for proclaiming the truth. Whether or not the people responded, the prophet’s salvation was intimately linked with proclaiming the words of God. If he proclaimed anything else for any reason, like to save his life, he would indeed lose his life with God. Ezekiel is told:

Thus the word of the LORD came to me: Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman for the house of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, you shall warn them for me. If I say to the wicked man, You shall surely die; and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his wicked conduct so that he may live: that wicked man shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death. If, on the other hand, you have warned the wicked man, yet he has not turned away from his evil nor from his wicked conduct, then he shall die for his sin, but you shall save your life. If a virtuous man turns away from virtue and does wrong when I place a stumbling block before him, he shall die. He shall die for his sin, and his virtuous deeds shall not be remembered; but I will hold you responsible for his death if you did not warn him. When, on the other hand, you have warned a virtuous man not to sin, and he has in fact not sinned, he shall surely live because of the warning, and you shall save your own life. (Ezekiel 3:17-21)

The message of the prophet has two general themes. The first is that false worship is not salvific. When worship translates to nothing more than empty words and meaningless rituals, God is not pleased. No matter how ornate the Temple was or how beautiful the worship, if the worshippers went from there to murder and plunder, it was of no value. If they worshipped the Lord in one moment, and sacrificed to the false Baal-gods the next, worship was nothing more than a lie. And God was fed up with it enough to say through Jeremiah:

Are you to steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal, go after strange gods that you know not, and yet come to stand before me in this house which bears my name, and say: “We are safe; we can commit all these abominations again”? Has this house which bears my name become in your eyes a den of thieves? I too see what is being done, says the LORD. You may go to Shiloh, which I made the dwelling place of my name in the beginning. See what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. And now, because you have committed all these misdeeds, says the LORD, because you did not listen, though I spoke to you untiringly; because you did not answer, though I called you, I will do to this house named after me, in which you trust, and to this place which I gave to you and your fathers, just as I did to Shiloh. I will cast you away from me, as I cast away all your brethren, all the offspring of Ephraim.

And to Jeremiah, God said,

You, now, do not intercede for this people; raise not in their behalf a pleading prayer! Do not urge me, for I will not listen to you. (Jeremiah 7:9-15)

The second major prophetic theme is God’s deep concern and care for the dispossessed in society, namely widows, orphans and resident aliens. Widows had no standing in the society of the time because they did not have a husband to defend and provide for them. Orphans were similarly dispossessed because they had no father. The resident alien was on the margins of society because he or she was not a citizen, and thus had no rights. For these who had no one to care for them, God cared very deeply, and the obligation of society toward these dispossessed goes all the way back to Deuteronomy. In the Laws written in Deuteronomy, we find among other things, a prohibition of taking a person’s cloak or property as collateral on a loan, because it left the poor with nothing. Violation of this law was not trivial, in the prophetic imagination it was a disaster. Listen to Amos on this point:

Thus says the LORD: For three crimes of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke my word; Because they sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals. They trample the heads of the weak into the dust of the earth, and force the lowly out of the way. Son and father go to the same prostitute, profaning my holy name. Upon garments taken in pledge they recline beside any altar; And the wine of those who have been fined they drink in the house of their god. Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorites before them, who were as tall as the cedars, and as strong as the oak trees. I destroyed their fruit above, and their roots beneath. It was I who brought you up from the land of Egypt, and who led you through the desert for forty years, to occupy the land of the Amorites: I who raised up prophets among your sons, and nazirites among your young men. Is this not so, O people of Israel? says the LORD.

But you gave the nazirites wine to drink, and commanded the prophets not to prophesy. Beware, I will crush you into the ground as a wagon crushes when laden with sheaves. Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong man shall not retain his strength; The warrior shall not save his life, nor the bowman stand his ground; The swift of foot shall not escape, nor the horseman save his life. And the most stouthearted of warriors shall flee naked on that day, says the LORD. (Amos 2:6-16)

Three things mark the prophets’ preaching on these issues. The first is that everyone is responsible. Even though an individual might not take part in these injustices personally, yet their toleration for it and their own personal sin contribute to the wider societal destruction. This is an extremely important point, and it is a theology that continues in the Church today. Our sins are not just offenses against God, some other person and ourselves. No, each of our sins contributes to destroying the fabric of our world as God made it. The second mark is that the prophets always insist on the urgency of the matter. These are not issues to be discussed and discerned at leisure; they are black and white issues that must be eradicated immediately lest God destroy our land. The final thing that distinguishes the prophets’ preaching is that of high drama. No words are spared when it comes to painting the dire picture of the sins that have led to God’s displeasure, and what will come about as a result of them. The following is from the prophet Micah in which the Lord has presented the case to the people and now demands an answer from them: “O my people, what have I done to you, or how have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, from the place of slavery I released you; And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” The Church has adapted this lament into what is called the Reproaches which are traditionally sung on Good Friday. They go something like this:

My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom: you led your Savior to the cross
Holy is God Holy and strong! Holy immortal One have mercy on us!
For forty years I led you safely through the desert. I fed you with manna from heaven, and brought you to a land of plenty; but you led your Savior to the cross.
Holy is God Holy and strong! Holy immortal One have mercy on us!
What more could I have done for you? I planted you as my fairest vine, but you yielded only bitterness: when I was thirsty you gave me vinegar to drink, and you pierced your Saviour with a lance.
Holy is God Holy and strong! Holy immortal One have mercy on us!

It goes on like that for a while. Suffice it to say that if you don’t feel guilty after hearing the Reproaches, you’re just not capable of that emotion!

Before moving on to Jesus as prophet, I want to touch on one other aspect of the prophet’s life, the area of loneliness and misery. Heschel in his book says, “To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction. The mission he performs is distasteful to him and repugnant to others; no reward is promised him and no reward could temper its bitterness. The prophet bears scorn and reproach. He is stigmatized as a madman by his contemporaries, and, by some modern scholars, as abnormal (Heschel, 21).” Indeed, Jeremiah is very poignant on this point:

I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it. Yes, I hear the whisperings of many: “Terror on every side! Denounce! let us denounce him!” All those who were my friends are on the watch for any misstep of mine. “Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail, and take our vengeance on him.” (Jeremiah 20:9-10)

This takes us right back to the prophet’s call, doesn’t it? If he had been unwilling, he was still compelled to speak on behalf of the Lord. There was no turning back, or the very words would weary him by being held in and would eventually burst forth from his lips, achieving the end for which they were intended.

II. Jesus as Prophet

So now let us take a look at Jesus as prophet. Before we go there, we must acknowledge the important “transitional prophet,” St. John the Baptist. John is commonly acknowledged to be the end of the old prophecy and the beginning of the new. He preached repentance and administered a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. But he always taught that he was not the new focus, that there would be one who came after him mightier than he, whose sandal straps he was not fit to unfasten. He acknowledged at the end of his ministry that we must now look to Jesus:

Now a dispute arose between the disciples of John and a Jew 13 about ceremonial washings. So they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing and everyone is coming to him.” John answered and said, “No one can receive anything except what has been given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said (that) I am not the Messiah, but that I was sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:25-30)

When Jesus did increase, then, what was his message? Well, we now have that in a nutshell as the third luminous mystery of the rosary: The proclamation of the kingdom of God with its call to repentance. Jesus’ prophetic concern was pretty much the same as that of the prophets. He was, like them, concerned about authentic worship: worship that was from the heart, worship that did not end after the worshippers went forth in peace to love and serve the Lord, worship that translated into action on behalf of the poor and needy. He was concerned about those dispossessed, preaching that whatever we did to the very least among us was done to our Lord himself. But even there, he ups the ante, doesn’t he? He doesn’t just testify on behalf of the widow, the orphan and the resident alien; no, he goes one better and says that however we treat them is the way we treat him. Ministry to those in need is deeply personal to God, and we can see that in the way that Jesus preached. All of his actions backed up his words. He would heal and feed and care for the needy, no matter what day it was – Sabbath or not – and no matter how other people perceived his actions. In the end, of course, he was willing to die for what he preached, and willing to die for those to whom he preached and ministered. Jesus is kind of the “ultimate prophet” whose whole life, words, actions and everything, was prophecy.

Worthy of some special note is the issue that was brought up in the Gospel reading I proclaimed at the beginning of this talk. Jesus, as we know, throughout his public ministry, had an ongoing issue with the Scribes and Pharisees. These people were scrupulous about keeping the over 600 laws that bound them, and keeping them to the “t.” More than that, they were scrupulous about being sure that everyone else kept these laws also. Jesus’ issue with them was that they obsessed about the Law, but ignored its spirit. Because of this, Jesus puts them in the same class as their ancestors. Let’s hear it again:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’ Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now fill up what your ancestors measured out!

You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna? Therefore, behold, I send to you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that there may come upon you all the righteous blood shed upon earth, from the righteous blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (Matthew 23: 29-35)

Because of their own indifference to authenticity in worship, because of their own neglect of the widow, the orphan and the resident alien, they are held in just as low esteem as their ancestors, who furthered their crimes by murdering the prophets. Because the Scribes and Pharisees are no better than their ancestors, they are complicit in the murder of the prophets and liable for judgment on that crime.

The most important point on the issue of Jesus as Prophet is that his prophecy is the key to our salvation. Let’s return for a minute to the image of the “deep dark yogurt of sin and death” that I brought up earlier. Blocked, as we are, from access to God because of this chasm of sin and death, we had no hope. But, on December 25 of “Year Zero,” if you will, God sent his only Son into our world. He was born among us and walked our walk, talked our talk, and died our death. Then he rose to new life that lasts forever, completely canceling the effect of the deep, dark yogurt of sin and death, and giving us the ability to live forever with God. This is the Gospel message, friends, and the whole plan of our salvation. That Jesus was part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world from the very beginning is central to our faith. That Jesus’ prophecy was the final answer to what power would reign for all eternity – death or life – can never be disputed. Jesus is for us the ultimate prophet!

III. We Need a Prophet

This is an important point for us, brothers and sisters, because we need a prophet. Has the proliferation of inauthentic worship diminished over the years? Certainly not. How many people come once a week for barely an hour and then go and do their own thing in the parking lot, in the workplaces, schools and communities? How many people come only on Christmas and Easter and barely even immerse themselves in the Good News of Salvation? How many people cannot be bothered to miss a soccer game or softball practice or whatever activity it may be, to come to Mass and worship our God who gives us all of his time? There is no dearth of inauthentic worshippers, to say nothing of non-worshippers, is unquestionable. Who will speak to them?

What about concern for the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien? In our time they may look more like the single mother, the abused child and the homeless person, but they are all here among us today. It’s just another flavor, or better still, another development of the same poverty, isolation and marginalization. Does God care less about them than the dispossessed of old? Of course not. But how often are they cheated, dealt with as a nuisance, or simply ignored? Who will speak for them?

If you take nothing else with you from your study of the prophets, take this: you need to be that prophet. Study well the prophets of old, but then remember that you are called to be the prophet of the new. Every one of us who would be a disciple of Jesus is called to live a prophetic life of faith, hope and love. Every one of us is called to live the prophecy of Jesus by, as another of my seminary professors used to teach us, loving what Jesus loved while he was nailed to the cross, and by despising what Jesus despised and he hung there in agony. We must make it our constant care to live the way we worship, and to be advocates for the marginalized. If we don’t, we will have learned nothing from the prophets of old who cry out to us from the great cloud of witnesses. And if we don’t, we will have laid down the cross and walked away from discipleship. We are God’s prophets now, and our preaching is in the living of the Gospel. May the words of that Gospel burst forth from our lips as vehemently as the prophets of old. May the living of that Gospel take the form of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us pray.

Lord God,
your word of life gives us a new birth.
May we receive it with open hearts,
live it with joy,
and express it in love.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.