The Dueling Prophets

FOURTH SUNAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Prayer of the Day: O God, you direct our lives by your grace, and your words of justice and mercy reshape the world. Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures comes from a larger drama in the Book of Jeremiah that could be given the title, “The Dueling Prophets.” Unfortunately, you only get a little snippet of it in the reading. It all begins with God commanding Jeremiah to proclaim to the people of Judah that God is about to bring the Kingdom of David and the Temple in Jerusalem to an end by the hand of the King of Babylon whose armies are even now advancing upon Jerusalem. To make the point, Jeremiah is told to wear a yoke over his shoulders, the kind used for oxen. It is God who brings the yolk of Babylonian bondage upon Judah. To resist Babylon is to resist God. Jeremiah 27:1-11. You can imagine how that must have gone over. How would you like to be sent out to meet the Fourth of July parade with a yoke on your neck to tell everyone that God is about give victory to one of America’s national enemies?

The drama unfolds in Jerusalem where the prophet Hananiah is rallying the people of the city behind the flag. “Salvation is on the way! The Lord is coming to the aid of his people just like he always has in the past! The Lord is coming to rescue Jerusalem! The Lord is coming to save his people! Within two years we are going to see all the treasures taken from us by the Babylonians returned. We are going to see freedom! We are going to see peace! Do I hear an ‘Amen.’?” (Paraphrase of Jeremiah 28:1-4)

“Amen” shouts a voice from the midst of the cheering crowd. Everyone turns to see the prophet Jeremiah-wearing his yoke. “Amen!” shouts Jeremiah. “I hope you are right Hananiah. I hope everything you say comes true. Nothing would make me happier than to be dead wrong about everything I have said. But this is much bigger than you and me, Hananiah. This is much more important than who is right and who is wrong. The question here is, ‘What is the word of the Lord for us this day?’ Don’t forget,” says Jeremiah to Hananiah, “there have been prophets before you and me. Not all of them prophesied salvation. Some foretold disaster and destruction. Remember Elijah, remember Amos, remember Micah who once prophesied that this very city would be laid bare as a mown field. Time will tell what the word of the Lord is, who proclaimed it and who received it faithfully.” (Paraphrase of Vss. 5-9). So ends the lectionary reading, but not the story. Next Hananiah, in a dramatic and brilliant show of oratory, jumps down from the podium, breaks in two the yoke off of Jeremiah’s neck and cries out, “So shall the Lord break the yoke of Babylon from the neck of his people.” Jeremiah 28:10-11. The crowd roars its approval and Jeremiah goes his way. He lost the duel-for the moment at least.

Prophecy helps us make sense of the world and the way we experience it. Like art, prophecy is often disturbing, upsetting and even offensive. The prophet Isaiah walked through the streets of Jerusalem stark naked to bring home the tragic fate of Israelites from the Northern Kingdom, already themselves paraded naked into exile by the Assyrians. His potent visual served to evoke compassion for these unfortunate kin to his own people of Judah and bring home the threat of a similar judgment against them. The prophet Ezekiel portrays Israel’s faithlessness in a graphic poetic fable about an unfaithful bride using imagery we would surely consider obscene were it not located in Holy Writ. In today’s lesson, Jeremiah’s yoke illustrates God’s placement of Babylon over Judah as punishment for her sin, warning the people against the futility of rebellion.

But just as art, literature and music can be employed to spread propaganda, so prophecy can lie. False prophets induce us to consume lies and trust false promises. They trick us into accepting “alternative facts” and embracing false narratives. False prophecy appeals to the lazy and cowardly. It gains traction among them because it offers easily understood and comforting explanations to complex issues requiring the hard work of learning and courage to face difficult truths. False prophecy fixates blame on others instead of encouraging introspection and repentance. It pampers our inclination toward self-pity. There is a perverse comfort in believing that life is miserable because there are so many malicious forces at work making it that way: nefarious agents of Antifa, corrupt operatives in the depths of the “deep state” and radicals bent on implementing Sharia law. If these narratives offer nothing in the way of hope, they at least provide a target against which to vent one’s anger and an excuse for having to take responsibility for one’s own life.

But while false prophets insist that we are suffering victims at the mercy of a cruel world, true prophets insist that the world suffers because we are so bent on having our own selfish way. True prophets invite us to examine ourselves in order to discover the sin at the source of our misery. They open our eyes to the very real opportunities we have for change, repentance and faith. True prophecy, like good art, stands the test of time. Jeremiah’s words were rejected in his own day and the nationalistic jingo of his opponent, Hananiah, was popularly received with great enthusiasm. Yet it was to the words of Jeremiah that the people turned during their long exile in Babylon. It was the prophecy of Jeremiah that helped Israel rise from the ashes of its darkest hour and find its way forward to a new day and a renewed community. Jeremiah’s words are preserved for us in the Hebrew Scriptures. If Hananiah’s words were ever even written down, they have long since perished in the dust bin of rightful neglect.

There is no shortage of “prophets” these days purporting to tell us what God demands of Americans and how America figures into God’s will for the rest of the world. It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows me with any regularity that I reject all claims of “American exceptionalism” and preaching that blends American mythology, patriotism and white middle class morality with Christian faith. I must say that I am also skeptical of “progressive” equations of the reign of God with a redeemed America built on democratic ideals of the enlightenment. As much as I love my country and value the institutions and traditions that have helped promote the common good among us, salvation is for the cosmos. What role the United States of America might play in that, if any, is unknown to me and, as far as I can tell, unknowable to anyone else as well.

That brings me to my final point. True prophecy is tempered by humility. One should not say lightly those words, “Thus saith the Lord.” God’s ways are not our ways and God’s view of what constitutes progress in the grand scheme of things might not coincide with what we view as advantageous through the narrow porthole of our brief moment of existence. Jeremiah was prepared to admit that he might after all be mistaken, that he might have misunderstood God’s word and that he might need to listen more closely to that word. By contrast, Hananiah knew he was right, was sure he had the truth and therefore felt entirely justified in shouting Jeremiah down. Arrogant certitude is the surest mark both of a weak mind and a false prophet.

Here is a poem by Howard Nemerov about education that fittingly describes the courage, the rigor of learning, the humility and the depth of wisdom to which biblical prophecy calls us.

To David, About His Education

The world is full of mostly invisible things,
And there is no way but putting the mind’s eye,
Or its nose, in a book, to find them out,
Things like the square root of Everest
Or how many times Byron goes into Texas,
Or whether the law of the excluded middle
Applies west of the Rockies. For these
And the like reasons, you have to go to school
And study books and listen to what you are told,
And sometimes try to remember. Though I don’t know
What you will do with the mean annual rainfall
On Plato’s Republic, or the calorie content
Of the Diet of Worms, such things are said to be
Good for you, and you will have to learn them
In order to become one of the grown-ups
Who sees invisible things neither steadily nor whole,
But keeps gravely the grand confusion of the world
Under his hat, which is where it belongs,
And teaches small children to do this in their turn.

Source: War Stories: Poems About Long Ago and Now, (c. Howard Nemerov; pub. by University of Chicago Press). Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was an American poet. He was twice Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, from 1963 to 1964 and again from 1988 to 1990. He also won the National Book Award for Poetry, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Bollingen Prize. Nemerov was raised in New York City where he attended the Society for Ethical Culture’s Fieldston School. He later commenced studies at Harvard University where he earned his BA. During World War II he served as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force as well as the United State Air Force. He was honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant and thereafter returned to New York to resume his writing career. Nemerov began teaching, first at Hamilton College and subsequently at Bennington College and Brandeis University. He ended his teaching career at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was elevated to Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of English and Distinguished Poet in Residence from 1969 until his death in 1991. Nemerov’s poems demonstrated a consistent emphasis on thought, the process of thinking and on ideas themselves. Nonetheless, his work always displayed the full range of human emotion and experience. You can find out more about Howard Nemerov and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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