Listening to the prophets

Every Advent we read the words of the prophets. Part of the reason for this is that over the centuries church leaders have put a lot of emphasis on Jesus’ role as the Messiah of Jewish tradition. They pointed to the word s of the prophets as having predicted Jesus - or rather to Jesus as the fulfillment of the visions of the prophets. This emphasis has, in some of its expressions, fostered a misunderstanding of the nature of the prophetic role in the history and culture of Israel. Some thinkers have relegated the prophets to mere predictors of the future. That image really isn’t fair to the depth of prophetic thinking. If you want predictions about the future in Hebrew Biblical Literature, you might as easily turn to some of the apocalyptic literature and those predictions aren’t very often accurate now that we have had time to witness the unfolding of history.

Contrary to some contemporary presentations, the biblical prophets were serious critics of the status quo in their own setting. Their words served as warnings about the failings of the leaders Israel to practice justice and the dire consequences of such injustice. But these were not disinterested critics. They were people who loved Israel, who understood the ancient vision of a country that would live with justice and peace with its neighbors. They also believed the basic principle that the route to peace was not forged by military might, but rather by the conscientious practice of justice. From the perspective of the prophets political disasters were expressions of the displeasure of God. Yet they also believed in God’s mercy and capacity to forgive.

As a result, the prophets never lose the vision of the peaceable kingdom where justice is available for all, including those who have been outcast and live at the fringes of society: the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants.

Jeremiah, especially, repeated over and over two critical triads. The first, named above is the triad of those who have been marginalized by society: widows, orphans and immigrants. The second is the triad of responses God expects: compassion, justice and steadfast love.

As we journey through the Advent season this year, I am freshly struck by the words of the prophets. I have long admired their call to Israel and their ability to provide criticism of some aspects of the story of Israel that we have often spoken of admiringly. Jeremiah tackles the excessive wealth of the elite, especially the consolidation of wealth practiced by Solomon and the kings who followed him. He speaks out against the power brokering, arms dealing and attempts to consolidate power and influence.

In contrast with the deep criticism, I have been aware also of the compassion of the prophets. When disaster befalls Israel, the prophets change their tune and become encouragers of those who have fallen victim to the ravishes of the outside oppressors.

This year, however, I have been drawn to another prominent stream in the writing of the prophets. That is the way in which the books of the prophets begin with dramatic descriptions of their vision for Israel. They describe a kingdom of peace and justice and righteousness.

This week is the famous vision from the 11th chapter of Isaiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his root. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding . . . with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth . . . The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the falling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

At the core of all of the other important poetry that forms the bulk of the prophet’s teaching is a vision of the way things could be - a vision of what God intends for all living creatures on this planet. It is a vision of peace and it is a vision of a system of justice that is fair to all of the people. Isaiah is consistent in addressing the lack of justice as problem for the poor and the meek and that this imperfection in the current system is not in accord with God’s intentions.

That criticism of the ways of ancient Israel could well be a criticism of our current society. In the United States of America today our jails and prisons are disproportionately filled with those who come from impoverished backgrounds. Here in our county, those who are arrested who can afford to make bail are quickly out of jail as they await trial and the decisions of the jury. However, the poor remain incarcerated because they do not have the means to pay bail. That is a common pattern across this nation. Then when trial occurs, those who lack funds are represented by court-appointed attorneys, some of whom are excellently trained and and prepared for their work, but many of whom are carrying extremely heavy case loads. There are horror stories of exceptionally poor representation by court attorneys. Shane Claiborne reports of a case where the defense attorney fell asleep not once, but twice during the proceedings of a death penalty case in which the convicted was later exonerated, but only after spending decades in jail for a crime he did not commit. The stories of grave miscarriages of justice caused by the inability to afford competent legal counsel abound.

What the prophets remind us is that we don’t have to accept the brokenness of our society. We can speak out and stand up for a better way of living. We can keep alive the vision of a society in which justice is afforded for the poor as well as for the rich, where the benefits of health and education and freedom are offered to all and not just to some, where the resources of the society are shared in an equitable fashion.

We need to listen carefully to the words of the prophets. Their vision is not a relic of a long-passed time, but rather a beacon of hope for the troubled times in which we live today.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!