A Prophet Among Us?
by Timothy J. Mooney
I’d like you to imagine the potential headlines of Jesus’ hometown newspaper, The Nazareth Gazette – “LOCAL CARPENTER BILLED AS PROPHET,” or “ONE WHO SAWED LOGS NOW SOWING SEEDS IN SYNAGOGUES,” or my favorite, “FORMER CARPENTER HAMMERS PHARISEES.”
Can you hear the gossip?
Well, well, well, the hometown golden boy returns to teach in the synagogue.
Look, he has his mother’s eyes, and he’s grown up to be quite a nice young man.
Tsssk, such a shame he’s not married yet.
These young men and their ambitions. He should settle down and have a family.
Such a disgrace.
Being a carpenter wasn’t good enough for him I suppose.
They say he has healing powers.
Healing, schmealing. I’ll believe it when I see it.
I’ve heard he likes to hang out with, well, you-know-who’s.
And I hear he likes a drink or two. Shut my mouth, you didn’t hear it from me.
They are astounded with Jesus, this same Jesus who ran around with their sons and daughters, who grew up in the same little town as they did. “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands?!” It is as if Jesus could not be the source of his wisdom and power. He must have received it from somewhere else, or someone gave it to him. It could not come from who he is. Isn’t he just the carpenter? Isn’t he just Mary’s son? The brother of James? The brother of these sisters who live right here with us? He’s no different than us. He can’t be. Who does he think he is?
The text says, “they took offense at him.” The literal meaning of the Greek is “they stumbled over him.” Notice: he did not offend, or cause them to stumble; they took offense, they stumbled over him.
Jesus responds to them with an old line. “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” But it’s not only the prophet who is unwelcome: It’s the prophetic word. Who is the hardest person to hear truth from? The people with whom we are most familiar – your spouse, partner, long-time friend, or relative; the person you love as a fellow Christian but don’t like much because of their personality or political views; the person who once cut you to the quick and you have steeled yourself against them ever since; the person whose diapers you used to change, or they once changed your diapers. You might be sitting next to a prophet right now! I wonder: Just because they are familiar to you, are they precluded from speaking a prophetic word of truth to you? Or you, to them?
A prophetic word is not primarily predictive. The Hebrew prophets spoke most frequently against the appalling social conditions of their day. They were not foretellers; they were forth-tellers. A prophetic word is a call to return to the heart of God, to the compassionate and just treatment of others. (Jack Corbett, The Prophets on Main Street, preface)
In his book, The Relevance of the Prophets, theologian R. B. Y. Scott writes, “Conflict is eventually inevitable between religious institutions that are by nature conservative, and prophetic persons alive to [the demands of religion for] God’s present/presence that is always new” (p. 220). A prophetic word is difficult to hear, because it often goes against something we hold valuable if not sacred. And it feels offensive to us. Look at how often the Pharisees, the disciples, and Jesus’ own family, took offense at him. Jesus’ authority was not rooted in quoting the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact he criticized the Pharisees for knowing the scriptures, but not living by the truths in them. His authority lay in communicating the values of the Kingdom of God through stories about familiar things: weeds, seeds, plants, birds, business, family dynamics.
The prophetic word still comes to us in the same way: through ordinary stories of our lives. And the prophetic word comes when we have fallen away from the heart of God, and the just and compassionate treatment of others. And the prophetic word comes through people with whom we are familiar. But the familiarity of these people can prevent us from recognizing the Spirit – because we take offense so easily. Who are they to have a prophetic word for me? He’s my neighbor, she went through a divorce, he likes one too many beers, she’s too needy, he doesn’t know scripture like I do. I know them; they can’t have a prophetic word for me!
We also have a hard time hearing a prophetic word as a church, or as a political party, or as a country, because we don’t need a prophetic word.
We also have a hard time hearing a prophetic word as a church, or as a political party, or as a country, because we don’t need a prophetic word. We are just fine, thank you very much! It’s everyone else who needs the prophetic word! We become so familiar, comfortable, loyal, and devoted to who we are that we become deaf to a prophetic word. Israel had trouble with this all the time! They were God’s chosen, and they were patriotic about it! But they did not live up to what God chose them to be – a light to the nations – by seeking justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. B. Y. Scott describes one of the fundamental messages of the Hebrew Prophets, and how it is a prophetic word for our country today. “Because of God’s grace and love, [each one’s] duty to … all neighbors [of the world community] and to the common welfare, is inescapable. The recognition of this will transform the meaning of patriotism and galvanize democracy.” (p. 219)
We just celebrated Fourth of July: independence from the British Empire, and our continued independence based on our economic and military power, and our political and social principles. We are the best country in the world. We sing “God Bless America” and we mean it with all our hearts. But we must not forget: God’s blessing often comes as a prophetic word, when we have gotten off track. And we have.
I heard a patriotic and prophetic word about 10 years ago. At Peet’s Coffee near my studio in Berkeley, CA, I met Marvin – a French speaking Canadian, Jewish, gay, and a Wall Street broker. Marvin absolutely loved this country. He said he could never have achieved his level of success had it not been for the opportunity America provides. Yet Marvin said insider trading had been rampant for the 30 years he’d been a broker, and the small business owner, the poor and middle-class, were being left behind by unfair practices, and he said, “It’s only getting worse.” Through his eyes, the eyes of an outsider, I saw America with fresh eyes. America had become too familiar to me; I couldn’t see it clearly. As I listened to Marvin I felt patriotic – I was grateful and proud. And I became disappointed with America. Both. Marvin’s words helped transform for me the meaning of patriotism and galvanize what democracy can mean.
The United States is an amazing country, and it, we, have been blessed by God! And we can and must do better not just for us, but for the world. We enjoyed the Fourth of July, and gave thanks to God for our beautiful country. But what is the prophetic word God has for our country, for you and me? Have we become so familiar, and comfortable, and loyal, that we cannot, will not, hear it? What is the heart of God asking of you and me, of our country, for our world?
I will leave you with the words of two of the Hebrew prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah.
Jeremiah 22:1,3: Go down to the palace of the king and declare, “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.”
Isaiah: He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!