“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward”
The first question that came to mind when reading this passage is: what is a prophet? And what is prophecy? And what is the prophet’s reward?
Our culture has a few ideas about prophets, but they do not align with how the Bible speaks of them. So mining Abraham Joshua Heschel’s work on The Prophets, let’s dive into what culture and the Bible says about prophets and prophecy.
The first way culture speaks of prophets is those who predict the future. As a kid I was introduced to Nostradamus, a 16th century French astronomer who wrote many predictions. The problem with such predictions is they are vague enough that it becomes a bit of a game to try to shoehorn our current events into his prophecy. But that vagueness is what makes such a move possible.
But the Bible does not use vague language about the future. There is a couple of reasons for this. The prophets were always criticizing unjust conditions they saw happening in Israel. The predictions the Bible offers would be better understood as naming the consequences of our actions.
If you tell your kid that if they do not study for the test they will not pass, you are not a predictor of the future, you are laying out the consequences that will happen for failing to study. There is no magic happening here, it is rather wisdom and experience that tells us certain actions or failures to act will produce certain consequences. And those consequences are just around the corner.
The just around the corner piece is important here as well.
Because the second way our culture talks about prophecy is to focus on the end of days, the final consummation of history, the second coming of Christ. If our church were to put on a prophecy seminar, what do you think folks in our community would think? That we had some insight about when the world was going to end, the mark of the beast, who the anti-Christ is.
But the prophets in the Bible are not speaking about the end of days normally. They are speaking about the here and now and they are naming the consequences of our actions today.
If there is any reference to the end of days, it is a word of comfort. It is a statement that God will make right what is so wrong in our world.
28:9 As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet.”
Or as Micah 4 says
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”
That is not predicting the future like soothsayer, it is naming God’s good intentions for our world. And it is that of peace, where no one shall be afraid. The vision of God’s good intentions is always in contrast to the world as we experience it now, where we have plenty of things to be afraid of.
So, I suppose that could be our seminar but I wonder if folks would be disappointed that a prophecy seminar had no war or pestilence, no calendar to mark that says when things will end, beast. Only a restatement of God’s good intentions for us and our world, if we as Micah says, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”
The third way people speak of prophets comes form Paul Simon “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls”
This may be the closest we get to the Biblical idea of a prophet. A prophet names the conditions people are facing. The prophet is a participant, someone who experiences the injustice close to their heart. A prophet in the Bible is never pronouncing from afar what they see. They are coming from the community itself and they see close at hand, how these injustices are hurting people around them.
This is why a church that is thoroughly a part of the ongoing life of their communities can speak a prophetic word. Because you all know the real hurts, pains, experiences of our respective communities. This is not abstract.
If a person loses their business, you know them. If a farm is foreclosed, you know the family impacted. If there is a death, a suicide, these are not statistics, but people intertwined in your lives. And so, a prophetic word from the church ends up meaning something to the community.
These concrete events matter to God, infinitely. A drunk driving incident, a person losing their apartment and sleeping in their car, a small business forced to close, someone not making enough money to make ends meet. These become the fuel for the prophet. I would direct your attention to the quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel on prophets
“To the prophet, however, no subject is as worthy of consideration as the plight of humanity. God’s mind is preoccupied with humans, with the concrete realities rather than with the timeless issues. In the prophet’s message nothing that has bearing upon good and evil in human life is small or trite in the eyes of God.”
Our world is filled with small moment of beauty, of justice, and of kindness. These are overlooked but not by God. They are filled with infinite significance; the raw material God uses for the new world God would build. We should not overlook them either.
Our world is filled with gross injustices, racism, bullying, economic and social desperation that could be told in hundreds of stories and they often get overlooked by our society. We casually accept that this is the way of the world.
But not for God. Every action, a knee on a neck, people losing their jobs, bullying in the school yard has infinite significance to God, is a breaking of the world God would have for us. That should give us pause.
Or as the rabbis write in the Talmud:
Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life of Israel, it is considered as if he saved an entire world
This means every event, no matter how small is filled with infinite significance. This can be seen as good news in that our life and world is chalked full of meaning.
But there is a flip side. Every injustice the prophet sees is not just a condemnation of that injustice but of the world that produced it. This becomes the source of the prophet’s condemnation of Israel. This is why the prophets were not always well received in Israel.
If you claim the whole of society is judged by discrete actions of injustice, you move from a knee on George Floyd’s neck that took the life from him to questions of whether America is racist. You can see how that sounds. Is it hyperbolic? Over the top? Unfair to the US?
I could provide statistics about the racial wealth gap, the way people of color experience law enforcement too many times, racial profiling but that may be to undermine the point.
Any single injustice is laid at the feet of the society that produced this so that we have broken something about our world. That is what so many of the protests (not the looters, the actual protesters) have spoken to. The world is broken, and they are witnessing to this fact
The question is what we in the church do when we come across such a response. Could we see it as prophetic? Amos 5 captures this sense
“They hate the one who reproves in the gate and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.”
How prophets are usually received
And the instances of injustice are laid out
“Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.”
If we welcome the prophets, it looks like this
“Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;”
When prophets identify an evil and we respond by doing right, we have welcomed the prophet. And this too has infinite significance. That is, our actions for righting wrongs, for listening to those who identify the problems and then respond accordingly, becomes a welcoming of prophets and therefore God’s presence in our midst.
The question is who are the prophets in our midst, in our congregation, in our community, who takes these individual problems and does not slough them off as something easy to accept as a part of life but sees them as so important that they grieve God and God’s good intentions for our world. That if it breaks God’s heart it should break our heart too.
So the reward? A chance to participate in what the rabbis called “Tikkun Olam”. Concrete actions, sometimes small, sometimes big, always significant in that they add to the repair of the world. The world is broken by injustice, by the evils we see in the world. We listen to prophetic voices that identify these evils and the reward is that we become a coworker with God in fixing what is broken, rebuilding the world to that which God has always intended for us.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings and summer interim at Peoples Congregational in Sidney MT and First Congregational in Savage MT.