The Prophet Elijah by Sieger Koder
“To us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to world.
Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria. We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery, but we rarely grow indignant or overly excited. To the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions.”
“The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind…Almost every prophet brings consolation, promise, and the hope of reconciliation along with censure and castigation. He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”
“The prophet does not judge the people by timeless norms, but from the point of view of God. Prophecy proclaims what happened to God as well as what will happen to the people. In judging human affairs, it unfolds a divine situation.”
Therefore, the prophetic speeches are not factual pronouncements. What we hear is not objective criticism or the cold proclamation of doom. The style of legal, objective utterance is alien to the prophet. He dwells upon God’s inner motives, not only upon His historical decisions. He discloses a divine pathos, not just divine judgment. The pages of the prophetic writings are filled with echoes of divine love and disappointment, mercy and indignation. The God of Israel is never impersonal.”
– Excerpts from The Prophets, Abraham J. Heschel, 1962.
I’ve got prophets on the mind. Thinking about prophets, the act of prophecy, and what it means in the world today. I’m taking a course at a local theology school on the prophets, taught by Sr. Helen Graham, a Maryknoll Sister, who delights and challenges me in every lecture.
I have limited knowledge of scripture (i.e. almost none). A few bible study programs at my former parish and that’s about it. I approached this course with a bit of trepidation, wondering if I would even ‘get’ what was being taught. So far, each class has only served to whet my appetite to learn more. After each class I make my way to the library and I stroll through the stacks of books and make lists of which I will borrow and which I will look for upon my return to Canada. I am restricted to borrowing one book at a time, which is a huge disappointment when all I want to do is peruse page after page.
But…back to the prophets. I am drawn to them right now because I am drawn to world events, and to events in the Philippines, that disturb me. I am angered by acts of violence and by the indifference to these acts that I encounter. I guess I am also angered by my own feelings of helplessness in the face of indifference. I am searching for the prophet who will bring society to its senses.
The prophet sees the world around him or her and is so moved by injustice as to feel God’s own response within, compelling them to speak out. In the Old Testament the prophets railed against Israel for being faithless and for falling away from God. Redemption was possible but there was a cost – to turn away from sinfulness and greed.
Where are the prophets today? Can we hear them? Our world is in chaos. Atrocities occur every day and become commonplace. We become used to reading about bombings and terrorist attacks. We see images of poverty and war and environmental degradation. We become mired in our own infighting. Sometimes we respond to global injustice by posting messages of love and solidarity on social media. Sometimes we reprimand our governments and urge them to do things differently. Are we all prophets when we act in this manner? Or does a prophet do something more?
I don’t have a complete answer to this yet. I’m still learning. Sometimes I like to think of myself as a prophet, pointing out injustice. But maybe I’m just a complainer. I’ve been complaining about life since I learned to speak. It’s a craft I have honed over many years. But surely prophecy is more than complaining.
A great part of that more is contained in the prophet’s union with God, in the expression of God’s response to a situation. I look at myself and I know that I am not there (yet?). One of the biggest gifts I have received this year is the freedom to see myself clearly (or at least with growing clarity). And what do I see when I look at myself? I see a hypocrite. I see someone with mixed motives. I see someone who is trying to be more concerned about others around her than she is about herself but she’s not quite there yet. I can see that I am more of a false prophet than a true prophet. My complaining is more about my own desire than about God’s.
So the true prophet, I think, is someone who has a certain freedom of motive (i.e. not acting based on his or her own interests), and therefore is open to union with God and seeing through God’s eyes. However, the passion aroused in the prophet comes from within the prophet and is a personal response at the same time as being a response from God.
It’s tricky to articulate this clearly and I’m probably not doing a good job. Perhaps I’ll get further along in my course and come away with a different perspective on the prophet – who knows. But what I do know right now is that the world needs prophets. In every age, and in this very moment, we need people who can see the world through the eyes of God and speak the truth to us.