Monday, 22 April 2013


Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.  Matthew 7 vv21-23

Church-goers are familiar with the names of some of the ancient Israelite prophets because they hear readings from the books in the Old Testament that record their messages. ‘Prophet’ is a misleading word for them because these people were not in the business of foretelling the future; they were more concerned with telling uncomfortable truths about the present. The prophets stood in stark contrast with the clergy who maintained the Temple in Jerusalem and carried out the time-honoured rituals of ancient Jewish religion. These clergy were members of the priestly families, and inherited their role. They consequently did not always have an interest in religion, not at any rate in its non-ritual aspects, and they had no professional or personal reason to want anything to change. The prophets by contrast could be peasants or artisans, or come from more privileged parts of society. They were unlicensed; their only qualification for addressing the people came from within. They were men with a mission; they wanted to change things, sometimes ways of life, sometimes beliefs, sometimes national moods. They were creative in the way they put their message across – in poetry, in symbolic actions, in their family life. They were very frequently unpopular at least with the establishment because of their desire to change things. Think of the priests as a kind of civil service and the prophets as crusading journalists and you can see why it was only very rarely that one person could perform both roles.
                It’s a shame that the ancient Hebrew prophets are not better known by church goers. It’s a shame first because their messages continue to have resonance today: Jeremiah’s insistence that people acknowledge the facts of their communal life, Amos’s demand for social justice, Second Isaiah’s logical monotheism bringing all things under a single power, Micah’s longing for peace. These men’s words deserve better than simply to be used to prop up well-meaning sermons on these subjects; they were powerful words from courageous people who sometimes suffered for their frankness. While we might usefully think about who are our prophets today, and perhaps wonder whether we ought to be among them, we should first understand their teaching and acknowledge their greatness. But it’s a shame also because this ignorance of the ancient prophets affects how we see Jesus in the context of the development of Jewish sensibility. Jesus was very much in the mould of the prophets. In fact it would be perfectly correct to say that he was one of their number in terms of his background, his desire for change expressed in religious terms, his difficulties with the establishment and his creative ways of teaching including through his own death. Just as you can summarise the message of each of the Old Testament prophets in a line or two, so you can summarise Jesus’ teaching quite succinctly – it’s worth trying this yourself.
                Yet Jesus was not simply absorbed by Judaism and made into one of its prophets. There were several historical reasons for this. First, his critique of the old religion was radical in the sense that it did not seek to improve its practice; instead it subverted it by pointing out that no amount of improvement would make it deliver human flourishing – you could not put new wine in old bottles. Second, the Jewish leadership was well aware of this and had gone further in silencing Jesus than it had with earlier prophets: it had killed him. On top of that, the unified Jewish community in Palestine was destroyed within decades of Jesus’s crucifixion; the tradition that had completely accepted the authority of prophets like Isaiah and Amos and had given some recognition to what we call the Apocrypha ceased to be open to any new prophetic voices. And of course the appropriation of the person of Jesus by Paul’s new religion of Christianity made it difficult for anyone to see Jesus as a prophet, at least until Islam arrived on the scene and – like some forms of Hinduism later – placed Jesus firmly in the prophetic tradition.
                The great benefit of making the effort to see Jesus as the Prophet of Nazareth is that it takes our attention away from debates about his status and focuses it on his message, on the content and meaning of what he taught, and on why that was so explosive as to get him executed at the behest of the religious authorities. We may think there is much more to him than what he taught; but surely no such consideration should lead us to think that it is unnecessary to understand his message and his objectives in delivering it. He may be more than his teaching, but he cannot be less than it.
                But what if someone should say that they saw no more to Jesus than a great prophet, a man who taught people how their lives could be enriched, but not The Risen Son of God? Such a person might as easily have a background in Christianity as in one of the other religions, or indeed in secular thinking. The response of the church through the centuries has been to draw a bright dividing line between those who hail Jesus as The Risen Son of God, whether or not they are ignorant of his teaching, and those who don’t, however much they value and have learned from his teaching. But perhaps this is the wrong line; perhaps the line that really matters is between those whose cultivated disposition leads them to live along the lines Jesus suggested and those who lack that disposition, irrespective of their metaphysical beliefs. And perhaps that is the line that Jesus the Prophet of Nazareth would have recognised; we will know when we have learned to hear his prophetic message. I can’t help but feel that today’s text makes his view clear enough. 

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