Truth Claims of the Prophets June 28, 2020
The first reading for June 28 (Jeremiah 28:5-9) takes place in July or August of 594 BCE, roughly three years after the Babylonians had captured Jerusalem. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, had captured Judah’s king Jehoiachin and replaced him with a 21-year-old puppet, Zedekiah, whose job was to collect tribute and maintain order in Judah. However, the captive king Jehoiachin was still popular and the citizens still longed for his return.
Meanwhile, Nebuchadnezzar faced unrest. A portion of his armies had mutinied in December 595 and January 594 BCE and the uprising had emboldened other captured states to revolt. They had sent emissaries to Jerusalem to solicit Judah’s participation in an insurrection against the Babylonians. Zedekiah was considering joining.
Immediately before this morning’s first reading, a prophet named Hananiah had said, “the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon (Nebuchadnezzar). Within two years I will bring back … all the articles of the Lord’s house that he … took to Babylon. I will also bring back … Jehoiachin … king of Judah and all the exiles from Judah,’ declares the Lord, I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.’” This was a popular prophesy. Furthermore, it echoed an earlier event when God had intervened in a seemingly hopeless situation and struck the massive Assyrian army that had threatened Jerusalem in 701 BCE. (2 Kings chapters 18 and 19). People wanted it to be true.
This morning’s reading begins here. Then Jeremiah replied to the prophet Hananiah before the priests and the people who were in the house of the Lord. He said, “Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord fulfill the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the Lord’s house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon. Jeremiah agreed that Hananiah’s prophecy sounded attractive. Then he added a big “but”.
Nevertheless, listen to what I say …From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true.”
This truth-test comes from Deuteronomy 18:20-22, when Moses said to the Israelites, If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.
Jeremiah had the unenviable job of delivering news that neither Zedekiah nor the people were eager to hear. As history and scripture tell us, Jeremiah passed the truth test because his prediction came true.
In the lead-up to today’s gospel, Jesus gave his disciples bitter-sweet instructions that were similar to Jeremiah’s prophetic words in that they foretold difficulties. Jesus called his twelve disciples and gave them authority to… proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.
While his instructions indicate that they will bring welcome relief to people he added, ominously, Do not be afraid ... for there is nothing … hidden that will not be made known… Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. … So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. The promised rewards are heavenly, not necessarily on earth.
Then Jesus gets to the hard part of his instruction. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
The truth test of Jesus’ words came when his apostles faced abuse and even death for preaching Jesus’ message of love and repentance. They lost their lives for the sake of Christ.
The short gospel for today (Matt 10:40-42) offers a different kind of prophetic vision.
“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”
Jesus had told his disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead, cure lepers, drive out demons as they had seen him do. When the disciples identified with Christ, he identified with them. A version of this theme appears in the first line, anyone who welcomes you welcomes me. The one who is sent represents the full presence of the one who sends. Unlike the prior section of the gospel, however, where the promised reward comes after death, this reward is a welcome in the contemporary context… What is not stated is also clear: whoever rejects the disciples, rejects Christ.
Early Jewish-Christians, to whom Matthew wrote, used the word prophet and apostle to refer to an itinerant missionary. As with the Jeremiah reading in this morning’s service, Jesus was also keenly aware of the power of prophets and the temptation to imitate them for personal gain of power, glory or riches. In Matt 7:15-20 Jesus said “Watch out for false prophets. They come in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them… A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. The role of prophets as truth tellers was important to Jesus and his early followers.
The reference to a prophet’s reward is intriguing. Some people would welcome the prophets. Jesus clearly refers to this welcome as the reward. But Jeremiah’s life, in which he was beaten, and his writings were burned, suggests an ironic “reward” could also be a possibility.
· Beyond proclaiming divinely revealed truth, the prophets encouraged people and presented new perspectives. Whom do you consider as a contemporary prophet? Desmond Tutu for his insistence on both Truth AND Reconciliation? Thomas Berry and Pope Francis for their warnings about the consequences of despoiling the planet? Joseph Stiglitz for pointing out the “price of inequality”?
· Jesus quoted from Isaiah eight times in the gospels and balanced his use between warnings such as “eyes that do not see” and “ears that do not hear” (Is 6:9–10; Mt 13:14–15;).But Jesus also quoted Isaiah when describing how his ministry was to heal the blind and bring good news to the afflicted (Is 61:1–2; Mt 11:5;). Who are your touchstone prophets? Isaiah? Jeremiah? Samuel? Ezekiel?
· Have you experienced the sword of Christ’s message: been separated from people close to you by their lack of belief in Christ? It is a hard divide. One prays for them, invites them to join in thanks to God… and remembers that God loves them, even when the love is not reciprocated.