Prophets: Part One
Speaking the Truth from Within
Monday, July 1, 2019
A prophet is one who names a situation truthfully in its largest context without being pulled into dualistic factions. Scripture shows the Hebrew prophets speaking to the people as one of their own, not above or apart from the community. Prophets share in the problems and in the gifts of grace as they seek to guide the future toward something better for the collective. And do note that they almost always address the collective: “The House of Israel” especially, but also Assyria, Egypt, Bethel, Gilgal, and many others. Jesus, following their pattern, does the same with Jerusalem, Bethsaida, Zebulun, Naphtali, Chorazin, and Capernaum. How did we not see this?
While our society places great emphasis on the individual, true prophets are almost always concerned with social, institutional, national, or corporate evil and our participation in it. They only speak of individual sin when referring to kings, high priests, and other leaders who represent the whole. Frankly, that’s where Christians got our notion of church—from the Jews—that there has to be some kind of collective good or collective transformation that bands together, because there is no way that we as individuals can stand alone against corporate evil or systemic sin. Here the individual is useless. The individual will be bowled over and lose.
In many of his public addresses, Pope John Paul II reintroduced this concept when he referenced sin and evil as social, institutional, or structural. Sadly, his terms have been largely ignored, I think, because we lost the prophetic imagination or way of picturing both the problem and the solution.
Because the prophet or prophetess speaks truthfully in the largest context, after the fact, it does often appear that they foretold something. But prophecy is much closer to the Eastern idea of karma or that what goes around comes around. Prophets teach how reality works by sharing what’s going to happen. You keep destroying the earth, and you’re not going to survive. That’s not a threat; it’s a description. Unfortunately, however, Christians often read the prophets as using threats to try to change behavior, when really they’re just showing us the universal patterns that are always true. This is the karma of events: evil is its own punishment, and goodness is its own reward.
The Jewish scholar Martin Buber points out in his marvelous early study of the prophets, The Prophetic Faith, that usually what the prophets said would happen actually did not happen. That’s because the future is always contingent upon our cooperation, choices, and actions. Therefore, if we live in love and treat the poor with justice, the good will happen.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Prophets Then, Prophets Now, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2006), MP3 download.