The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; *
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever. (Psalm 111:10)
The readings for this week cover topics that we must listen to carefully. In Deuteronomy, we hear Moses tell the people that God will “raise up” a prophet who will speak God’s words. In the Gospel reading, we see such a prophet in action—and not just a prophet but the Messiah, speaking God’s words directly to evil forces and bringing deliverance to the victim of their torment. The psalm and the letter to the Corinthians offer a powerful lesson regarding wisdom and knowledge. Both passages challenge prevailing notions of what a wise or knowledgeable person should look like.
There is no doubt that prophetic voices are needed in our world. In every time of history, there is a need for prophets who speak the word of God’s love and truth, voices truly directed by God, filled with grace and compassion, guided by faithfulness and justice, given in truth and equity. But as in the time of Moses, how do we discern God’s prophets? In a time when we cannot physically walk and talk with Moses or Elijah or Jesus, how do we hear God speaking today?
There is no shortage of people who claim to be mouthpieces for God’s authority. We hear it from all sides of the political and religious spectrum. So, the challenge is not like the time of Samuel when “the word of the Lord was rare,” it is in figuring out who truly speaks Yahweh’s words today.
I recently came across an important book. In Prophecy without contempt: Religious discourse in the public square, Cathleen Kaveny focuses on the “American jeremiad.” The word jeremiad comes from the honored tradition of religious and political speech of social indictments issued by Jeremiah, Isaiah, and other Hebrew prophets. She writes this book not as a historical study, but to draw insights from history to better understand and hopefully contribute to beginning to correct our almost intractable state of polarized discourse in our country. She says, “Imitating their biblical models, American practitioners of prophetic rhetoric chastise their own people of violating the basic social contract, which they frequently present as divinely sanctioned and supported. The rhetoric of the jeremiad, therefore, cannot help but condemn, that is the core of its social function. At the same time, it is extremely important that its contemporary practitioners resist the urge to contemn those they condemn.”
Condemn and contemn are two words close in spelling and articulation, but they have quite different meanings. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, condemn means to “pronounce an adverse judgement on; to express strong disapproval of, to censure.” The verb contemn has a very different meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines contemn as “the action of despising, the holding or treating as of little account, or as vile and worthless.” The word is closely related to the Greek word temnein, which means “to cut or to cut off,” “to prune,” or even “to wound or maim.” Kaveny says that in the heated battles of the American public square, it is all too tempting for those who claim to speak from the prophetic tradition to let their condemnation mutate into contempt.
And then last weekend, Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, an author and lecturer, preached and led a forum at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. Speaking on the importance of connection, she said we have sorted ourselves into “bunkers” in this country where we have very little interest in those who do not think or believe like we do. She said that you would think the silver lining to this reality is that those who are in these bunkers with us would be our best friends forever. But research is showing that this is not the case. Research is showing us that the more we sort into factions the lonelier we are growing. And why is this happening? Brown believes that behind these barricades of belief there is no real connection. She says the only real connection is that we disapprove of or hate the same people. So, we are only linked through as she calls it “a Common Enemy Intimacy.”
While the words of the prophets are often difficult to receive, in the tradition found in scripture, God intends them for correction so that healing and wholeness may be the result. God loves and cares for all that God has created and prophecy comes out of that love. Prophecy is not intended to result in contempt for the other or to declare another’s worthlessness or to “cut them off” from our common humanity. Prophetic speech is not intended to divide us, but to restore and reconcile. Through the prophets, God speaks words that draw people to each other, so that we are reminded of our common need for each other and our common need to be mindful of and compassionate towards each other.
God desires to draw all people to Her so that we can live fully into our deep connections. When prophets speak from God, though the words may be demanding, the intent is never separation. Rather as Abraham Joshua Heschel says the prophet stands alongside the people as witness to the “divine pathos.” –God’s heartbreak over how we turn from God and each other. The prophet shares the suffering, violence, and inequality of the community to which he prophecies. The prophet stands alongside the longing and brokenness of the people. The prophet never stands above looking down or at a distance, but shares the pain and the struggle in proclaiming words intended to create justice, to bring hope, and bring God’s promise to fruition. Prophecy is intended for healing, for restoration, and reconciliation, for repentance and starting new.
And while we need to hear prophetic voices in our world today, we need prophetic voices who speak God’s words not only with their mouths, but with their actions. We need to hear prophetic voices from those who understand the cost and are willing to pay the price of prophetic ministry. Prophets never gain riches or self-promotion from their ministry. Instead prophets are often called to give up all—even their lives— to speak the word of God into the world.
In our reading today from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus comes to the synagogue, as is his custom on the Sabbath. He reads and explains the scripture and all the people are “astounded by his teaching” because of the way he speaks as “one with authority”—one who has been authorized. And then Jesus sees a person in desperate need. Now I know that it is hard for most of us, including me, to imagine this exorcism. But when I try to see the pathos of this man in the synagogue, all I see is how totally ravaged he was. According to Mark’s account, the man could not speak — the spirit spoke over him. The man had no control over his body– the spirit convulsed it. The man had no community because the spirit had isolated him. And the man had no dignity because the spirit dehumanized him. This is exactly when Jesus steps towards him, rebuking all that would separate him from his community and the love of God. Through his actions, Jesus clearly proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near. He calls all to turn around and live into the truth of the good news.
We need to hear prophetic voices that are truly guided by God and reflect the wisdom and knowledge that the psalmist and Paul talk about.
We need to hear prophetic voices that speak from a position of love and compassion that builds up.
We need to hear prophetic voices that reflect the awe of God that seeks to restore us rather than divide us.
We need to hear prophetic voices that call us to reconciliation, recalling our deep connections, rather than building deeper bunkers.
We need to hear prophetic voices whose deeds show their authority.
We need to hear prophetic voices that speak through word and action to break down all that separates us from each other and from God’s love for us.
Where do we find prophetic voices today? God calls people from every walk of life. God calls people of every age and gender and race and creed. God calls people from halls of power and from places of deep poverty and oppression. We must be alert and awake to all the possible places where God’s word can transform our lives.
Today, I hear God’s word coming from young people in the Black Lives Matter movement who call out for basic dignity and safety. From young immigrants who seek belonging from the only community they have ever known. I hear God’s voice coming from people of the Indian nation, who having suffered the affront of dispossession for centuries, non-violently stand up with dignity to demand that their communities and their lands be honored. I hear God’s voice coming from people like Bryan Stevenson who has devoted his life to advancing the right to justice for those unlawfully imprisoned by our criminal justice system. I hear Gods’ word coming from young women whose lives and bodies have been violated by a system that tells them they are not worthy of respect. Where do you hear God’s voice speaking today?
I offer that anywhere love and reconciliation, restoration and connection are proclaimed—there God is speaking. Wherever voices remind us that we belong to each other, that when one suffers we all suffer and when compassion is extended to any part of God’s creation we all are healed—there God is speaking. If you are having trouble hearing prophetic voices in our world, I invite you to turn off the news and read Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle or look up a website that was shown to me by Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro called The Giraffe Heroes Project that shares the good news of people all over the world who are willing to stand up for compassionate action for others—they are willing to stick their neck out.
Listen, open your minds and hearts, God is speaking today and always. God continues to raise up prophets among us.
 Cathleen Kaveny. Prophecy without contempt: Religious discourse in the public square. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.