What is a prophet? When we think of a prophet, we often think of a prophetic voice, a person who has divine insight, who can prophesy the future, an ecstatic visionary, one who is inspired. We think of a charismatic person who is kind of glamorous or magical because they shine with a little divine glitter rubbed off from God.
But in the Old Testament biblical stories, the work of the prophet is often drudge work. The prophet is usually chosen by God to speak for God and help guide the people of Israel. And if we review the accounts, the prophet often conveyed news that wasn’t very welcome: “Shape up, people!” “Stop worshiping idols!” “Your corruption is appalling and is making God angry!” This is not a means of winning friends and influencing people. And the prophet might have to send God’s message to people he or she didn’t even like, as with Jonah’s reluctant trek to Ninevah.
In the story for 1 Kings, Elijah has been called upon to do a number of distasteful things. He has confronted King Ahab for murdering an innocent man, and he has reprimanded the community for falling into idolatry. He then goes so far as to singlehandedly kill the priests who led the community in worshipping Baal. For his pains, Ahab’s wife Jezebel promises that she will kill Elijah as retribution.
So here are a few ways that we can most surely identify a prophet: 1. They are constantly getting run out of town. Fearing for his life, Elijah takes flight. He finds himself in the wilderness and says to God, “I’ve had enough. Please just end my life.” Therefore 2. Prophetic work is lonely. In Psalm 42, the speaker says, “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?’ As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” 3. Ironically, the person who is thought to have a deep connection with God, who is speaking on God’s behalf, may feel abandoned by God. Jesus has some potent things to say about this: “A prophet is not welcome in his own land” and, on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 4. Prophets are strange people. They may seem like the nerds, the rebels, or the tattle tales of the world. They do not fit in. Here’s an example: Simone Weil was, in my view, a 20th Century prophet. She was an intellectual who devoted her life to poor and uneducated people. A Jewish woman who became Christian. An upper middle class woman who didn’t need to work, but who got a job working a factory assembly line to be in solidarity with working class people. She made her elite acquaintances uncomfortable by insisting that they pay attention to the experience of the less privileged. Though she craved to join the Catholic church, she stopped short of baptism, because she wanted to witness to the ways that the Catholic church excluded some people, and her refusal was a witness to her faith as against the power and authority of the church. We can admire these things about Weil, and see her as a prophetic voice, while still being troubled by her prophetic style. For instance, she insisted, during the time that she worked on a farm, that she sleep on the dirt floor of a shed, despite the fact that this arrangement actually made more work for her hosts. She refused, when she was a teacher, to follow the curriculum and standardized testing, because she believed that’s not what her students really needed to learn (she was fired). When the rest of Europe was growing gardens, and using the black market to supplement their food ration cards during the second world war, Weil, who had fled to England, refused to eat more than one could get by strict rationing standards to be in solidarity with her French countrymen—she effectively starved herself, and by some accounts her death was, at least in part, the result of a form of anorexia. In other words, prophets can be very disruptive and irritating. When God’s wisdom flows through a human vessel, all the quirks and wrongheadedness of the individual tend to get mixed up with the divine message.
The other story from the liturgy this week is the story in Luke in which Jesus exorcises demons from a man and drives them into a herd of swine which swarm into the sea and drown themselves. From our safe historical distance, this seems to us mostly like a story of Jesus as having the power to heal: the man went away free, finally, of the sprits who had long tormented him. But the people who watched this firsthand were freaked out. To them, this spectacle was frightening. The passage ends with people asking Jesus to leave because they were scared of him.
(See definition of “prophet” above: run out of town, weird, lonely, bringing the word from God that no one wants to get.)
The challenge for us as contemporary Christians is how to identify and put to use our own prophetic voices, realizing the liabilities of the prophet’s role. I invite you to pause here and consider times in your life when you have had a prophetic edge—and perhaps also when you could have had a prophetic message, but chose not to speak out.
What do we learn from these stories? How can they sustain us?
Elijah is broken, alone, afraid. Certainly we have all been in this position before. But note that an angel twice reaches out to touch him—and to feed and nurture him. In a sense, the angel reminds Elijah of his humanity: that he needs rest and nourishment. To be a prophet is also to remain human and to care for ourselves in our human state, to be willing to heal under the touch of the angelic host. It is this that fortifies Elijah to witness to the grandeur of God and to continue his journey into the wilderness. And note too that Jesus did his prophetic work in community. He traveled with his disciples and was always accepting the hospitality and care of people in the towns he visited. In this way, to be prophetic is to be nestled in the community of the church, to be the church. That is, a prophet is one who doesn’t just deliver the message of God, but learns to accept the gifts of God, life in the divine community.
In the end, the rigor of the prophetic role—the isolation of such insight and witness—is indeed an irritant in the church. The prophet calls us to be alert to the Divine presence and begin to comprehend the centrality of God’s love in creation. The prophet, in other words, calls us to understand to what we can never fully understand and to respond wholeheartedly despite our limitations. The prophet delivers us to an impossible vocation. Of course we resist the prophetic message and hesitate before a prophetic calling! But that holy irritant, that bit of grit in the heart of things, nestles down into the oyster shell of the church and develops its own luster—a pearl of matchless faith. In that glow, we shine together. Amen.