July 8, 2014

Not a Thing to be Claimed


Text: Matthew 10:41a: “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet
will receive a prophet’s reward.”

Prophets are a rare breed. That may well be for our benefit. Prophets stir up trouble, say uncomfortable things, ask difficult questions. They are not the easiest people to be around.   

But they’re not just rare for that reason. A true prophet is a rare specimen because God does not seem to make many such people. Even in an age that needs prophecy—and heaven knows we live in one—true prophets are not that easy to come by.

At the very least this is another point on which our own moment, and the moment in which Jesus lived and taught, look very much alike. Our culture is abundant with would-be prophets. There are the televangelists, of course, and the radio talk-show hosts. There are the talking heads on the Sunday morning news programs and the usual experts on the interview shows. There are the TED-Talkers and the Big Thinkers and the business-school gurus for just a little time with whom people willingly pay thousands of dollars. 

It seems strange to imagine, but the folks of Jesus’s day felt pretty much the same kind of inundation with opinion-peddlers. Jesus was unique in many ways, but he was certainly not unique in being regarded as a prophet. Plenty of people were regarded as prophets, or miracle-workers, or healers, and plenty more claimed to be. 

The difference between that day and ours had more to do with what the stakes were in these prophecies than with the relative number of prophets per capita. In our own day, the most interesting prophecies—at least the ones that seem to get the most attention paid to them—are about the stock market, about the tech industry, about oil prices, or maybe about politics.

But in Jesus’s day, prophecy was much more about spiritual matters—or, if they dealt with worldly things at all, then about matters of justice and ethics. Prophets were the ones who uttered words of judgment; they didn’t predict so much as they indicted, setting down charges to be decided in the court of history.

•  •  •

In thinking about this little line from Matthew’s gospel, it’s a good idea to remember what came just before the reading we heard this morning. In case you weren’t in church last week, I’ll just remind you—because last week’s gospel reading was from the verses immediately before this reading. 

Here’s the whole reading in context: “....whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward...”

When you hear it this way, you get something of a deeper sense of what Jesus means by “a prophet’s reward.” It is not necessarily something you’d want to have.

Prophets are rare exactly because the reward for true prophecy is hardship and danger—and even death. What Jesus is saying here is that when we receive true prophets into our homes, into our churches, into our lives, then we are likely going to end up sharing in their rewards as well. By aligning ourselves with them, we will expose ourselves to ridicule, persecution, and derision. Because those are the things that are a prophet’s reward—at least in their own land, and in their own time.

As in the days of Jesus, plenty of people around us make the claim to be prophets. Indeed, there is a kind of fashion of the moment in the church these days to claim the mantle of prophecy by asserting that whatever we have to say is “prophetic.”

When I do a search of the word “prophetic” in my e-mail inbox, pretty much every message that matches that filter has come to me from the Diocese. In the profile of the diocese used in our search for our new bishop, we spoke of looking for someone who will be, here’s the quote, “a prophetic visionary.” We have gained such a comfort with that word that we readily and quickly fly it in front of our pronouncements as a way of legitimizing them.

But it seems to me that fundamentally misses the point of how prophecy works. No true prophet claims to be a prophet. In fact if you search through the stories of the prophets of Hebrew scripture, again and again there is a story about how a true prophet is called—and it begins with that person hearing the call and saying that they can’t possibly answer to it, because they are too weak, or too inarticulate, or too unknown, or whatever reason seems compelling to them.

True prophets are given that distinction by others; they don’t claim it for themselves. The sharp sword that divides the posers from the prophets, that separates the thousands and thousands of claimers from the precious handful of true visionaries, is the long and lingering test of history. 

Something else that the scriptures teach us about prophets is that they are difficult, complicated, often deeply flawed people. Prophets are not paradigms. They are not generally role models, and one of the easiest ways of dismissing a prophet’s message is by skipping the message to critique the medium. Prophets are vivid examples of a point often lived out in the life of Jesus—that true obedience to the will of God and the law of love often looks like a lack of regard for the structures of power and the laws of society. 

None of this is to say there have not been prophets in our own day. There have been. They are not often in the church. Forty-five years after his murder we see Martin Luther King, Jr., as a prophet; and it is well to remember that of the eight white clergy leaders to whom King wrote in response the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” two were Episcopal bishops. Perhaps that deep mistake of history goes some way to account for our eagerness to be thought of as prophets now.

Margaret Marshall is a prophet in our day. In 2003 she was the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth, and it was from her mind that these words came: “The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals. It forbids the creation of second-class citizens.” That was her answer, in the Goodridge decision, to the question of whether all people, or only some people, should have access to the institution and legal protections of marriage. 

For me, another prophet of our time is Dorothy Day, the cofounder of the Catholic Worker. She is largely forgotten now, which is all the more sad because her words and witness spoke eloquently against exactly the kind of economic inequality that is tearing apart our communities and our social contract. 

Day knew the experience of being wildly popular and celebrated by popular culture, and she also knew the experience of being abandoned by those who had flocked to her exactly because the absolute consistency of her love for the poor and the marginalized made them regard her as communist, or anarchist, or pacifist, or something else they could not understand.

•  •  •

Martin Luther King never claimed to be a prophet; just a preacher. Margaret Marshall never claimed to be a prophet; just a lawyer and a jurist. Dorothy Day never claimed to be a prophet; just a journalist and a writer. The power of their prophetic witness is clearer to us because we can see in retrospect the distance between the humility of their claims and the extent of their impact.

And so we should be cautious indeed in claiming the prophet’s mantle. A prophet’s reward, as Jesus reminds the crowd, is by no means a comfortable one; and while we may imagine ourselves prepared to accept it, the title is not a distinction for us to assert for ourselves.  For most of us, the better part of wisdom, and the greater part of ministry, lies in the simpler task of discerning with clarity our own vocations, and then pursuing them, whatever they may be, in ways that reveal God’s work within us. Amen.