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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The problem with prophets (C20O)

In your struggle against sin
you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. (Heb. 12:4)

The Yoke, byMichael Buesking
The word "prophet" gets thrown around a lot these days. Almost anyone with an ax to grind against anyone else, anyone who claims to foresee the future, anyone who dares to be disobedient and can garner a sympathetic audience can be named a prophet by somebody. I was trying to figure out what kind of insight this weekend's scripture might bring to this phenomenon.

Jeremiah has a problem. His faith in the covenant leads him to preach against the king and the temple, who have turned to idolatry after the death of the king's father, King Josiah. Jeremiah is preaching a bleak future for Israel, and he turns out to be right, of course. The thing is, he wasn't the only prophet in town. There were other prophets who called him a liar and a fake, and he called them the same. From the fortunate vantage point of 2500 years of history, we can see that Jeremiah's name is remembered as a great prophet, both by Israel and by the Christian world, and his enemies are forgotten.

Put yourself in the position of the everyday Israelite, trying to make a living, under siege by Babylon in Jerusalem. The king and his prophets have thrown their hope in with Egypt, which is suspiciously invisible when things get dicey in Jerusalem. Jeremiah has been preaching against resisting Babylon. He wanders the streets of Jerusalem wearing a yoke over his shoulders, From their point of view, Jeremiah is undermining national security. He is "demoralizing the soldiers," as the reading says. Other prophets in Jerusalem are preaching about peace, Jeremiah is preaching about destruction and captivity as a result of Israel's idolatry and forgetfulness of the covenant. Whom would you believe?

In Luke's gospel, Jesus is not much passed the transfiguration, which is set between predictions of his passion and death. He has a problem like Jeremiah's. His point of view is that the temple leadership has settled the nation into a comfortable (for the leaders) policy of accommodating Rome, but that the god of Rome is not the true God. There is a different kingdom, a different empire, a different God, a different economy, a different peace, and they are unreachable through the religious and political channels of the temple and Rome. It must have seemed an insurmountable problem at times, the great numbers of people for whom survival depended on obedience, the religious practices that held the borders in place between the clean and unclean, the saved and lost, the temptation to employ the doomed shortcuts of revolution and violence, the profound imbalance of power and wealth, and the seduction of believing that power and wealth are what they seem.

And Luke's gospel is, of course, written from the distance of decades of church life, after the Christian diaspora, after the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, after the passing of many of the eyewitnesses to the events recorded therein. The gospel vision and hope for its arrival are still quite alive in the community, but along the way there has been disappointment and disillusionment, accommodation, even apostasy, as new apostles, prophets, and martyrs took on the mantle of those whose names populate the gospel narrative.

People today get called prophets, too. Some prophesy peace, some destruction. Some are pro-government, some anti-. Some are in the church, or a church, and some are outside. Some are inside and act outside. Prophets, we say, speak for God. That's what the meaning of "prophet" is. It's not that they necessarily see the future, it's that they interpret present behaviors as leading to predictable outcomes from God's point of view. So how do we know who is a real prophet, and who's a phony? Who is Jeremiah, and who Hananiah? Who is Elijah, and who the prophets of Baal? Who is Christ, and who is, well, Pilate? or Caiaphas?

"True" and "false" prophets are judged by just one principle: who your god is. If one's god is, for instance, American exceptionalism, then one might rightly call Glenn Beck or Ted Nugent a true prophet, and by the same token judge Pope John Paul II or Daniel Berrigan a phony. If one's god is the infallible and unerrant Roman Catholic Church, then one might think of John Donaghue or Pope Benedict XVI as a prophet, and think of Sr. Simone Campbell or SNAP or the press investigating clergy abuse as false prophets. The question is, which god, and therefore, which future, concerns the prophet? Who "wins" in the eschatology of the prophet?

For me, I don't think Caesar needs any help. Whoever is in power is there to stay, and history overwhelmingly supports the view that the few powerful and rich have no intention of being anything other than the few powerful and rich. By threats, violence, and manipulation, they act like gods on their own behalf, substituting occasional altruism for justice, letting excess wealth "trickle down" to give the occasional illusion of beneficence.

If someone is accused of being a prophet, I ask myself, of which god? If the prophet is right, who wins? As far as I can tell, the God of Jesus is for everybody. The God of Jesus is "our Father," the head of the universal household, who wants for all the children in all the worlds unity and peace, equality and freedom, as a birthright bestowed on all and which we owe to one another in love. There is no coercion with the genuine God. There is no place for violence and threats of death, no superiority of race, nation, caste, or class. There's also no shortcut to unity by way of law, to peace by way of war, or to equality by way of violence. Everyone just needs to be persuaded by the story, by the importance of the needs of the other, and opt into the equality of the empire of God.


Maybe that's what a true prophet is, for someone who believes in the God of Jesus. Someone who believes the God is for everybody, and not just for those who can help themselves, or even those who can help others because of position, birth, or money. We may not believe as Jeremiah did that God needed to exact retribution for Israel's infidelity, but a prophet knows, and needs to say, that human actions have consequences, and no alliances with force can long delay the echoes of violence in the world. As I say, a person's god(s) will qualify the prophets s/he believes in. That's the one that I believe in. The one who is for everybody.

And the forces of the other god(s) will not sit by idly while their world is torn down. They will strike back in all the ways that they know how, and we have seen that again over and over again in our own lifetimes. Prophets know that that violence is coming, and can be confused or unsettled by God's silence. Jeremiah himself cried out to God that God had seduced him, raped him even, and he wanted to run away from his calling, but it came back to him like fire in his heart. I thought of Jesus in the gospel yesterday, longing to set his fire upon the earth, seeing with the evangelist's eyes the division that was caused by the gospel of unity and love, and trembling at his calling. Trembling both with some premonition of the violence that would be done to him by the other god, and trembling with desire for the peaceful empire of Abba that was so close he could touch it and even share a taste of its abundance in Caesar's world. Moving that mountain into the sea might have seemed like a challenge even to his experiential, solid faith.

Some critics say that Bob Dylan's most acerbic songs, the ones where every phrase is thrust and twisted like a dagger into the flesh of some unknown target, songs like "Just Like a Woman" and "Idiot Wind" and "Positively Fourth Street", are really songs about which he himself is the subject, his powers of analysis and self-observation resulting in these musical masterpieces of recrimination and parody. I wonder whether Jesus, encouraging his apostles a few chapters from today in giving themselves over more completely to faith in Abba, might have been talking as much to himself facing the last weeks of the Jerusalem journey. "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you." For Mark's Jesus, it was a whole mountain that would fly into the ocean. It was probably an apt comparison to the task of turning humanity around 180°, and setting course by the star of a different pole. 

The Letter to the Hebrews, finally, speaks of the struggle against sin. I think the author here means "sin" in the sense that Jesus means it when he opens up the campaign for the soul of humanity in the opening verses of Mark: "The reign of God is at hand. Turn away from sin, and believe in the gospel." In other words, "Turn away from the empire of the god of violence, lies, and slavery, and believe in the victory of this other God I'm telling you about, the God of love, truth, and freedom. A new world is really close by. All you have to do is turn around. All of you. Stop believing the lies, and turn around." In the struggle against sin, Hebrews says, the struggle against cooperating with Caesar and being faithful to Abba, you have not yet had to shed your blood, like the master did, and like many others have done. 

Jesus, God's true prophet, did shed his blood. As though in a bit of cosmic, eschatological theater, his death was like a grain of wheat, a seed from the garden of God's empire planted in Caesar's field. That act of faith-filled subversion could overrun Caesar's field as its seeds multiply over the ages. We will all look up from the ground together some day, turn around, and then the mountain will fly away.