The global community faces daunting issues in 2017. Where does one go to hear God’s message to the people of his creation. Over the past weeks I have been reflecting on prophetic ministries that dare to speak for God about issues like hunger, disparity, racism, consumerism, violence, and the mass migration of people. You could add other themes to my short list of urgent humanitarian problems.
My times of reflection and prayer have included daily readings from the book of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. I invite my readers to think about a few characteristics of the prophetic vocation of Jeremiah during a period in which his country was defeated and leading citizens taken into exile. I made the following eight observations based on my reading.
Observation 1: Prophets rely on a strong sense of God’s call.
As a young man, Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet to the nations. There was a deep spirituality that sustained his vocation. He understood, at least in retrospect, that he would need to speak into the national life of Judah and surrounding empires and kingdoms. His vocation is portrayed with the verbs to destroy, to overthrow, to build up, and to plant. I take that to mean that he was to address the destructive tendencies of his culture and to offer an alternative vision of God’s rule. His call gave him the strength to speak and act.
Observation 2: Prophets speak about important issues in the name of God.
Jeremiah spoke about deep issues. National defence. Idolatry. The economic system. The social position of the most vulnerable – aliens, widows, orphans, and slaves. False security. Violence. Civil religion. Fraudulent prophets. The environment. That last theme may surprise you. But Jeremiah had a strong conviction, albeit pre-scientific, that human evil impacted on creation. Prophets do more than share opinions. They dare to speak in the name of God. They believe that words have power.
Observation 3: Prophets Make Use of Symbolic Actions
On one occasion Jeremiah purchases a pot or jug made of clay. He calls together some of the religious and civil leaders of Jerusalem. He smashes the jug in front of them and states: Thus says the Lord, I will break this people and this city. You may remember how he wore a yoke publicly and purchased land at the height of the crisis. Small but meaningful symbolic actions.
Observation 4: Prophets Speak to Diverse Audiences in Diverse Places
Jeremiah addressed people in general, religious leaders, prominent citizens, and even the king. He spoke in the temple courts, in the streets, and in the royal court. The message was not massaged to be more palatable to the powerful. I feel compelled to read a few verses so that we get the flavor of Jeremiah.
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbours work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
who says, ‘I will build myself a spacious house
with large upper rooms’,
and who cuts out windows for it,
panelling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion.
Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord. (22.13-16)
Observation 5: Prophets Tear Down Fraudulent Ideologies
Jeremiah had to deal with syncretism and the moral perversion of his own faith. He was particularly concerned to attack the religious ideology of national security associated with the temple. His words were tough.
Observation 6: Prophets Speak for the Poor and Marginalized
Jeremiah speaks on behalf of the vulnerable sectors of the population – the aliens, the widows and orphans, the victims of violence and injustice. He knew that God delighted in steadfast love, justice, and righteousness while the royal court boasted about intelligence, power, and wealth.
Observation 7: Prophets Hold Out the Vision of a Better Future
We celebrate Jeremiah’s promise of the new covenant each time we participate in the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. He had a vision for the renewal of his people. He built up and planted as well as tearing down. “I will restore health to you, your wounds I will heal.”
Observation 8: The Prophetic Vocation Produces Opposition and Despair
Jeremiah faced insults and threats. The confrontation with colleagues – other prophets – was intense and bitter. Jeremiah paid a personal price. He was accused of being disloyal to his country and his traditions.
I wonder if these observations would be useful for leaders and congregations that wish to bear a prophetic witness in our wounded world.