Q: What’s a prophet?
A: Someone who tells the future.
Well, not exactly, though people often answer the question this way.
I first said it in my 4th grade Sunday School class during a lesson on Isaiah. I had reasoned that prophets, possessing otherworldly knowledge of things to come (usually bad!), told people about the consequences of disobeying God’s commandments. The people hadn’t and, after being warned, didn’t, thus the foretold future happened. (I later reckoned that this was the meaning of “self-fulfilling prophecy.”)
In the 1960s of my late elementary and high school years, a frequent conversation starter: Are there prophets today? Usual answer: Martin Luther King, Jr. This expanded my awareness of who prophets could be. People who looked like me. In my Sunday School lessons all biblical figures were depicted as white (or, in the language of our present day, less political progressive-speak, tan; but still, in either case, not black). The frequent reference to MLK also reformed my view of what prophets could do. More than the limited job description of declaring terrible things to come, but, as I came to understand, as the prophets of old, also crying “love and justice” and calling all to bring it to life. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” took on new meaning.
This morning, I reflected on the story of Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth. Reading from Isaiah, he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled.” Centuries before, to a desperate people in exile what Isaiah announced would happen in returning to their homeland, Jesus declares had happened in his homecoming as a bearer of the gospel, the good news.
The people, however, under Rome’s harsh rule, remained desperate. “So, Jesus,” I imagine them saying, “what do you mean? And don’t we know you? Who are you to tell us these things, these non-things, which, clearly, by all we see, aren’t true?”
Jesus cited the proverbial wisdom that prophets, as peace-disturbers, especially of those who “knew you when”, weren’t welcome. He infuriated them further, recalling how God had helped others, foreigners, even enemies.
Nevertheless, Jesus did fulfill scripture, proclaiming to the people the good news of liberation. If not from Roman oppression, then from their prejudices, close-mindedness, cold-heartedness to those not their own. But they refused to receive it.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Prophets speak and our inherent human hardness of hearing and heart is apparent whenever we cannot conceive or perceive a truth other than that already known and anywhere we will not lay down our arms against (and open our arms to) one another.
Our times call any, all of us to become prophets, offering our world of enmity and greed an alternate lens through which to view history and the present time so to behold the ideal of love and justice made real.
Daily, one way I try to do this, borrowing another biblical phrase, is to speak truth in love. I confess at times it’s hard to hold the two together. Either I speak truthfully with clarity, but without charity, which can be abuse masquerading as honesty or I speak gently, nicely so not to offend, which can be sentimentality pretending to be love.
Over time, I’ve discerned that speaking truth in love calls me to be and do more of who I already am. The Greek verb for “speaking truth” (alētheuō) means more than talking, but also knowing and doing what I believe, being true (“at home” with) my self. The operative Greek word for love is agape, which is not a feeling, but a power rooted not in my emotions, but in my will, my capacity to choose.
In this one way, among many, I believe we are prophets whenever speaking truth in love we act out the sacred scripture’s call of justice, and therefore, in our living, in our being proclaim, “Today this is fulfilled.”