THE PROPHETIC ROLE
The boomerang of prophecy aimed at society may knock out the idol we have in our sights, but it doesn’t complete its flight path until it hits the thrower as well.
What exactly is a prophet? Ask someone on the street and they will say it’s what a company makes when business is going well. When you tell them you mean a religious prophet rather than a commercial profit, they may be able to tell you it’s someone who can predict the future. Yet when you look at the role of the biblical prophet, their primary function was not to predict the future, but to judge the present with unusual clarity: to spot flaws in a world where others are comfortably at home; and to challenge people to reform their ways. Predictions about the future had their place, but they were secondary to the job of challenging people about their lives before God, and especially the political classes.
This last point about speaking truth to power meant that the life-expectancy of a prophet was usually short and full of grief, rather like being asked to walk through a minefield in a straight line. It is a timeless rule that when unscrupulous political leaders hear news they don’t like, the response is to shoot the messenger. As shooting God’s messenger meant that you then didn’t have to listen to God, this became a popular tactic.
Every week we recite a creed which states: he has spoken through the prophets, but it is easy to be wise after the event. We know now that Amos and Jeremiah were prophets with impeccable credentials, but this is not how they were seen at the time. Like poverty-stricken artists, it was only after they had died that their work received the acclaim it deserved. Prophets are rarely accepted by their own people either, because they remember them when they were children. This can be the kiss of death for credibility
There is no identikit picture of the biblical prophet. They came in all shapes and sizes, from different regions, jobs and classes. Some were well educated, others were not. Some were well connected, but on the whole they were outsiders. You couldn’t buy off their criticism with a free lunch, a season ticket or an invitation to the right club, so to speak. This was probably just as well because the cosier you become with the ruling elite, the harder it is to challenge them when you must. There are times when the prophetic and the pastoral are mutually exclusive offices, and the prophets had a good understanding of these boundaries.
If prophecy had only been about the future and not about the present, their vocation would have been easier. Unless your prediction relates to the near future, the people around you can then relax in a warm bath of shadenfraude, comforted in knowing the prophecy need have no bearing on how they live. In fact the task of predicting the future has always aroused a lot of interest in people because it draws heavily on human curiosity. Fortune tellers and astrologers are consistently popular in every generation as their job is to deliver amusement, not to demand amendment.
Prophets like Jeremiah had a sharp sense for injustice – the corruption of God’s creation. They could smell idolatry down-wind at a hundred paces while other sinuses were stuffed with the virus of complacency. I am sure their strictures could have been infuriating to receive at times. As we know from our world, it is easier to play the heroic, campaigning journalist than it is the pragmatic, compromising politician. Identifying where the world is going wrong is comparatively easy, putting it right is the hard bit. Nevertheless, the prophets were capable of breathtaking courage in the performance of their duties.
In Jeremiah 28, for instance, the Babylonians had taken their first captives from Jerusalem, placing their own puppet on the throne. Jeremiah walked the streets of the city wearing a wooden yoke to represent their submission to the invaders. The people should embrace their fate rather than oppose it, for it came ultimately from God. This was a deeply unpopular message. When a nation’s sovereignty is violated, its people will resist an invader with a newly invigorated patriotism. Collaborators are not tolerated, so Jeremiah calling on people to accept their loss would have made him a bitter enemy of the populist mood. In this, Jeremiah shows us a distinctive kind of patriotism where commitment to God is placed before allegiance to the nation. This is the type of patriotism which protects a nation from its own worst excesses. Those Christians who dissented from Hitler’s ways were scorned by their fellow Germans, but history has vindicated them.
In the ancient Middle East, idolatry usually took the form of images of beasts and gods. It is easy to feel superior when you look at primitive idolatry, but it is just as prevalent today, only in more elusive and sophisticated forms. Here are four of them. The idol of individualism: where we are encouraged to put ourselves at the centre of the world and to make choices and to express ourselves without regard to their impact on others. Secondly, the idol of consumerism: where we place our trust in what we own and measure ourselves against the next person by how much we possess; where we calm our fears by consumption rather than confession. Thirdly, the idol of celebrity: where people are graded according to how well known they are. This is something people collude in through gossip and by the way well-known people are often treated by a different set of rules to others. Is this what Jesus would have done? We know full well he wouldn’t, so neither should we. Fourthly, the idol of perfection: where every day we are sold unrealistic and airbrushed images of beauty and success which few can meaningfully aspire to; a world where old people and plain people are often invisible. A self-regarding culture where salvation is by image, not faith.
But before we finish there is one more thing to be said about prophecy. It is less of an arrow fired at the heart of society and more of a boomerang that turns back on the thrower. In Jeremiah’s era, the people had developed a superstitious faith in the power of the Temple building and the institution of the monarchy to protect them from their enemies. As the Temple and the Monarchy were so closely related to God, you can see why the people thought what they were doing had legitimacy. It is a pertinent reminder to us that our faith in God can evolve into a faith in something connected with God which looks sacred but which becomes idolatrous when it usurps the place of God in our affection. The boomerang of prophecy aimed at society may knock out the idol we have in our sights, but it doesn’t complete its flight path until it hits the thrower as well.
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