The Subtle Prophet
“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary … yada, yada, yada …” So begins a famous and, shall we say, a most successful foundational premise for political legitimacy invoked by some very smart and highly motivated residents of the American colonies against the mighty British crown. Our founding fathers invoked what they considered a sound and rational process to justify a total legal separation of this great new nation from Mother England. And I am very impressed that they kept calm long enough to use their words, knowing well what angry people are capable of. Eventually they did resort later to more disruptive and violent action. But they must have understood this sensible route was a more effective way to make their case in the court of public opinion. It was clearly the more grown-up choice over hysterics and emotional outbursts. The alternative could have made for great television otherwise. Luckily the internet, YouTube, and Facebook had yet to be invented.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident ..” Okay, first the very smart and highly motivated separatists needed to establish what these truths were, and that they were indeed self-evident. “… that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness …” It is safe to say those loyal to the crown would have found this entire matter outrageous and objectionable, while those who advocated independence would not have needed further proof. All across the colonies, it would have been impossible to find anyone who didn’t take a side. And so the fight for American Independence was under way.
Today, 239 years later, and well beyond the exchange of harsh words and the horrific casualty count, venerable mother England and sassy daughter America seem to be getting along nicely. There are still some awkward issues, like the British Royal family and American exceptionalism, but we don’t let it get to us. We can live and let live. We can share a Coca-Cola and listen to the Beatles. There is implicit trust and goodwill between us, except for that time when we tapped their phones. But we are good friends otherwise. We can laugh at each other, and hunt down terrorists together.
Throughout Israel’s journey as a chosen people, there seems clearly to be a constant struggle for them to live up to an ideal that had been set before them. And they were forever falling short. The ideal was openly and clearly defined in the Law of the Covenant handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. And when God struck this covenant with them, God became Israel’s God and Israel became God’s people. There would be no going back. It would be a constant struggle however. But since God wasn’t backing out of that deal any time soon, Israel would forever be God’s people. It’s just that both sides knew this relationship wouldn’t be smooth sailing. And slacking was not an option. Israel would be responsible for her part, and God would do God’s part.
Clearly, in this Covenant relationship, the objective is faithfulness—God to Israel, Israel to God. All things made sense only in light of this objective. There were a few established limitations—that Israel had potential to stray, and that God would have to keep calling her to conversion, and that when Israel repented, God would extend mercy and forgiveness. This formula has remained unchanged for generations ever since.
So when God decided to call certain people to speak his message of repentance to Israel, God established prophets in the service of his divine plan. Israel didn’t always receive them with open arms, but she learned what God sent them to accomplish. Now we have to understand that the purpose of God’s covenant with Israel still has not changed. It was still faithfulness in their relationship—Israel would live by the Law, God would favor Israel over all the earth. The prophets were sent simply to keep Israel on track, since she was prone to stray, much like mom and dad would nudge their children gently to keep them on the right path.
Now the life and mission of a prophet in Israel as it is often presented in sacred scripture has never appealed to me. I am a middle child. I don’t particularly care for conflict and confrontation. I would much rather find ways to smooth things over … and if that doesn’t work, I will find a way to leave the room. But the majority of prophets in sacred scripture seem to go for the jugular, are often disruptive and irritating, and often end up resented and persecuted by Israel’s leaders, hunted down by the powerful, and ignored by everyone else. So if prophets are sent to keep Israel mindful of her covenant relationship with God, it seems they are going about it all wrong. There has got to be a better way. Now don’t be alarmed. Nothing I am proposing is new. There are definitely people who successfully accomplish the covenant’s purpose without literally losing their heads. They are just not the ones who come to mind when we think of prophets.
I propose we recall once again the primary objective of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, and similarly, the church’s covenant relationship with the God and Father of Jesus Christ. God clearly wants us to be his chosen people. We simply have to live faithful to his values and the teaching and example of his Son Jesus. Some people will respond to gentle persuasion and friendly suggestion. So there will be preachers and teachers who will appeal to what is honorable and decent in us, calling us to walk the higher road, to be the bigger person, to embrace a nobler destiny. These will always remain graceful and unflappable, soft-spoken and gracious, coherent and practical. And they will be effective in certain circles.
And then there are those who might need a more aggressive, high-pressured approach. It takes a lot of chutzpah and great talent to effectively pull this off. I simply submit that I am not that person. So Ezekiel was told that he was being sent to rebels, hard of face and obstinate of heart, “and whether they heed or resist … they shall know that a prophet has been among them.” Similarly, Jesus found people in his hometown resistant to him and his message. Whatever their hang-ups—they knew his family, his background, his lack of formal education—gentle persuasion and friendly suggestion would have no effect. For those situations, I agree with the more aggressive, high-pressured approach. I just know I am not the man for that job.
Instead, I identify with Paul. I try to speak to the heart, and appeal to logic and emotion. There are seldom any “rockets glaring and bombs bursting” when I open my mouth. And when people nod their heads, I can’t always tell whether they see my point or are drifting off to sleep. In the end, we are all sent to proclaim God’s word and to call one another to faithfulness, whether after the example of Paul, or Ezekiel, or Jesus. Which one are you?
Rolo B Castillo © 2015