Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; Psalm 95: 1-9; I Corinthians; 7: 32-35; Mark 1: 21-28
Today’s readings once again raise the central biblical question of prophets and prophecy.
We should read them carefully remembering that prophets are not fortune tellers focused on the future. They were and today remain social critics focused on present injustices committed against the original beneficiaries of Life’s covenant with Moses – the poor and oppressed (widows, orphans, and resident aliens). Insofar as they predict the future, the prophets’ threat is usually that neglect of the poor will lead to national tragedy.
Yeshua the Christ, of course, appeared in the prophetic tradition which is always confused by the fact that the Great Mother’s spokespersons are inevitably contradicted by their fake counterparts. This Sunday’s readings highlight that point.
I was reminded of all this last week during a Zoom “Talk Back” responding to our pastor’s Sunday sermon on the fictional story of the prophet Jonah. That tale was centralized a week ago in the liturgy of the word. Towards the end, the pastor herself asked the question, “Who today is speaking the harsh truth that the Book of Jonah expressed?”
(As we saw last week the little Jonah parable (only 48 verses) is about a reluctant prophet who eventually has to face the fact that those imagining themselves to be the People of God (Israel) were quite the opposite. Meanwhile those whom Israel viewed as their corrupt enemies (Assyrians) were more responsive to God’s word.
In my own response to our pastor’s question, I observed “That would be like our hearing during the Cold War that Russians (communists) were more on God’s side than Americans. Today, it would be like being told the same thing about the Chinese or Muslims, or (worse still) al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”
Yes, that’s the way the Book of Jonah would have been heard in the middle of the 8th century BCE – as the Assyrian hordes massed on Israel’s borders ready to descend on “God’s People.” Eventually, they’d come (as Lord Byron would put it) “like the wolf on the fold.” They’d destroy the Northern Kingdom and take large masses of its people off to the Assyrian capital, Nineveh – as slaves. The book of Jonah dares to identify Assyrians as godly.
Imagine if some prophetic preacher today actually echoed Jonah saying, “You American exceptionalists believe that you’re especially pleasing to God. The exact opposite is true. In fact, your designated ‘enemies,’ Muslims, the Russians, the Chinese, and those you imagine as terrorists are actually God’s favorites.”
How hard would that be for Americans to hear?
But (to answer our pastor’s question directly) there actually have been and are religious prophets among us who have said such things and who are saying them today. I’m thinking of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jeremiah Wright, William Barber II, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, Dorothy Day, and even Pope Francis. Here’s what they’ve said in the name of God:
- Malcolm X: “I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
- Martin Luther King: The United States is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
- Jeremiah Wright: “When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. . . The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America“. No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America. . . as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme”
- William Barber II: “. . . I, too, am an atheist. . . if we were talking about the God who hates poor people, immigrants, and gay folks, I don’t believe in that God either.”
- Liz Theoharis: “Jesus led a poor people’s campaign.”
- Dorothy Day: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.”
- Pope Francis: “This system is by now intolerable: Farmers find it intolerable; laborers find it intolerable; communities find it intolerable; people find it intolerable.”
Those are not voices most of us are accustomed to hearing as representative of a Christian message that has been completely dominated by right-wingers who have effectively silenced the political voice of the one Christians pretend to recognize as the greatest of all prophets. They silence Yeshua’s authentic voice by focusing exclusively on the fiction of American Exceptionalism and on personal “salvation.”
The Prophet Yeshua
Instead, the very life of Yeshua the Christ was highly political from start to finish. He literally embodied God’s prioritization of the needs of the poor while specifically condemning the rich and powerful of his day. That’s why he had to be assassinated at a very young age — same as Malcolm, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton. . .
Think of it this way: Isn’t it true that Christian belief holds that Yeshua was the fullest revelation of God? If so, isn’t it therefore significant that the revelation site supposedly chosen by God was a poor man from the working class? Isn’t it theologically meaningful that he was born out-of-wedlock to a teenage mother (LK 1:34), was houseless at birth (LK 2:7), experienced immigrant status as an asylum seeker (MT 2: 13-15), traveled with a band of young people who had no visible means of support, was thought insane by his mother and close relatives (MK 3:21), was identified as a terrorist by the most powerful nation then on earth, and finished a victim of its torture and capital punishment?
I’d say that believers should find all of that extremely revealing.
Moreover, the highly political Yeshua is reported to have made radical statements about wealth and poverty, e.g.:
- “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:16-22)
- “Blessed are you poor, yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
- “Woe to you rich, you have had your reward” (Luke 6:24).
- “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).
- “So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33)
- “If you want to be whole, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
Still more, his followers took their teacher literally as they practiced a kind of primitive communism:
- “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2: 44-47).
- “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 2: 32).
All of that identifies Yeshua as a great prophet in the tradition of Moses, the liberator of slaves in Egypt, of Amos who defended the poor and criticized the rich, of Karl Marx, the last of the great Jewish prophets, and of the contemporary troublemakers listed above.
Keep all of that in mind as you review today’s liturgy of the word which centralizes the question, “Who are the true prophets among us?” What follows are my “translations.” You can find the originals here to see if I’ve got them right.
Deuteronomy 18: 15-20: More than 500 years After the Great Prophet’s Death Moses was remembered As predicting the advent Of another Great One For a people deathly afraid Of hearing God’s voice directly. Problem was: There’d be false prophets too Claiming to speak In the name of Yahweh, But actually representing False gods Whom, if listened to Would bring to believers Severe punishment. (Hmm. Where does that leave us?) Psalm 95: 1-9 It leaves us confused And in danger Of letting our own self-interest Harden our hearts To the authentic voice Of our loving Mother-Father God Our firm refuge Benefactor and guide. Her wonderful handiwork In creation itself Reveals more Than any prophet’s words. So, believe and embrace What you see With your own eyes. I Corinthians 7: 32-35 The case of St. Paul Illustrates our confusion About what to believe – What our eyes tell us Or the words Of an anxious Celibate prophet Like Paul Who’s been interpreted To say that Eros is somehow “improper” And a huge “distraction” For anyone serious About what’s truly important. (For, doesn’t Life Itself teach That Eros is A primary source Of God’s revelation About the nature of Life And Love?) Mark 1: 21-28 Jesus, on the other hand Had no such reservations. His followers believed Him to be the Great Prophet Predicted by Moses. He taught astonishing truths With authority and certainty Unlike the temple scribes (And the doubt-filled Paul). He terrified unclean spirits While delighting The (married) women and men Who hung on his every word.
The disparity between the nationalistic and exclusively personal understandings of the prophet Yeshua on the one hand and the highly political nature of his life and discourse on the other is extremely important to confront.
That’s because (as Caitlin Johnstone has recently reminded us) those who control cultural narratives control the world. And no narrative is more important to history’s control than the religious one we’ve just considered. That’s because religious faith addresses life’s most fundamental questions – the ones so thrillingly addressed by the prophets we’ve considered here: about the nature of life; our relations with one another, human connections with the environment, about foreigners, power, love, money, and justice.
I’ll even venture to say that religious story supplies the popular “philosophy” of most people in the world. It organizes their experiences. They might not know much about history, economics, or political parties, but they know what they’ve been told about the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Holy Koran.
To ignore this truism is tragically to surrender an essential tool of social justice to its enemies. On the other hand, exposing the radical social justice character of the Judeo-Christian narrative while challenging its domestication by false prophets represents an essential element of any attempts to shape the world by controlling its narrative.
Even completely secular social justice warriors should take note.