Saturday Night Theologian
19 August 2007

Jeremiah 23:23-29

One of the great problems involved in discerning God's will is distinguishing a true prophet--that is, one who truly speaks in God's name--from a false prophet, who inaccurately claims to speak in God's name. Several issues are involved here. First, if someone is a false prophet, does he knowingly speak lies, out of motives of personal gain, or is he simply mistaken about God's will? One might with some justification regard the false prophet who misrepresents God's word for personal gain as having greater culpability than the false prophet who is simply in error, but in fact the greater danger comes from the sincerely misguided false prophet. People of a cynical bent usually have little difficulty in unmasking someone whose ego or quest for wealth or power drives her to claim insight from God. Those who are absolutely convinced that their message is truly from God, on the other hand, tend to attract large followings, thus leading the masses astray. So how does one tell a true prophet from one who is sincerely mistaken? This is the crux of the problem. It's easy enough to point to predictions that don't come true as evidence for a false prophet's error (though some have been good at reinterpreting the evidence and hanging onto their followers), but since most false prophets don't offer up any easily falsifiable predictions, how can true and false prophets be distinguished? Jeremiah faced the problem of trying to distinguish himself as a true prophet in the midst of false prophets. The fact that he was outnumbered and that his message was unpopular, even unpatriotic, made it a hard sell. In fact, other than his scribe Baruch and a few other followers, most people in Jerusalem in the early sixth century B.C.E. probably considered him a false prophet. After all, what he was saying was tantamount to treason. Jeremiah prophesied that God would allow the city to fall into the hands of the Babylonians, in contradiction to both the popular doctrine of the inviolability of Zion and the commitment of the people to the ruling Davidic dynasty. Jeremiah cried out desperately in the voice of God, "How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back--those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart?" Jeremiah proved to be a true prophetic voice, while those who sincerely supported the dominant theology and the ruling party were proved wrong. It is popular today, even six years after the tragedy of 9/11, to brand those who speak out against injustice and imperialism as unpatriotic, which is equated in the minds of many with false prophecy. However, a thorough understanding of the message of Jeremiah, and indeed of the majority of the prophets, suggests that true prophecy regularly speaks truth to power, condemning the mighty who exploit the poor and the weak, and challenging the people of God to see God at work in those concerned for justice and mercy. "Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?" Maybe that's a clue to discerning true from false prophecy today as well. A word that comforts the powerful and does not call society to account for the injustices that afflict all systems of domination is unlikely to be a true word from God. True prophets comfort the marginalized of society while calling the rich and powerful to implement God's justice in the world. Perhaps most importantly in today's climate, the word of God is never patriotic, for God is not a partisan of any one nation. True prophets will often be unpopular and may be considered unpatriotic, but they can take comfort in the fact that God does not dwell in only one part of the world but fills heaven and earth.

Psalm 82 (first published 11 July 2004)

At first glance, the beginning of Psalm 82 makes little sense, particularly in Hebrew. First, the word elohim, a plural word that can be translated either "God" or "gods" (Hebrew has no capital letters, so only context can dictate the proper translation), is used twice in the first verse, as is the similar singular word el, which can mean either "God" or "god," depending on context. Thus, the first verse reads "elohim has taken his place in the council of el; in the midst of elohim he holds judgment." Assuming that the first elohim refers to the God of Israel and both the second reference and el refer to other gods, a second problem arises: if the Bible teaches monotheism, who are these other gods? The solution to the first problem lies in the fact that Psalm 82 is part of the so-called Elohistic Psalter, a group of psalms (42-83) that was edited in ancient times--before inclusion in the present book of Psalms--to replace most occurrences of the divine name Yahweh with Elohim. Thus, the first verse originally read, "Yahweh has taken his place . . . ." The solution to the second problem is a simple acknowledgement that the Bible is not as consistent as some people might wish with regard to the issue of monotheism, particularly in the earlier parts of the Bible and in poetry. One can argue that the reference to other gods here is poetic license; nevertheless, it is clear that the psalmist is drawing on language that worshipers will understand when he refers to a heavenly council consisting of many divine beings. The statement in verse 6, "I say, 'You are gods,'" probably refers to the divine beings who were thought to be in charge of various nations. Yahweh is accusing them of favoring the wicked over the righteous and failing to support the cause of justice in the world. As a result, Yahweh condemns them to the place of the dead and asserts control over all the nations. If we can get past the non-monotheistic statements of the psalm, we will find two teachings that are as revolutionary today as they were in the psalmist's day. First, God expects rulers, whether divine or human, to give justice to those who are the weakest in society. Second, all nations belong to God. One implication of these claims is that caring for one group of poor while wreaking havoc on another group of poor is not an option. If flying planes into buildings and killing innocents in one country is a sin, so is dropping bombs on innocents in another country. Perhaps that greatest sin of all is when one claims to be committing these atrocities in the name of God. The psalmist has a message for those who flaunt their power in wicked ways: "You have neither knowledge nor understanding, and you shall suffer the fate of all humans."

Hebrews 11:29-12:2 (first published 15 August 2004)

In Greek mythology a hero is someone who is larger than life. Always male, the Greek hero is of royal lineage and is often said to have divine parentage. After a miraculous birth, the hero undergoes persecution and separation from his parents. He accomplishes feats requiring enormous bravery and strength, marries a princess, and dies an unusual death, which is followed by a glorious funeral celebration. Heracles, Oedipus, and Achilles all fit into the mold of the Greek hero. Unfortunately, none were real people. Do we have heroes today? The word is often applied to people whom we respect, or for whom we feel pity, but that is not the proper meaning of the term. Office workers who died when the World Trade Center towers collapsed are certainly worthy of respect and honored remembrance, and they are undoubtedly victims and perhaps also martyrs, but they are not all necessarily heroes. On the other hand, the fire fighters and police officers who rushed in to save others are heroes in the truest sense of the word, as are those office workers who stayed behind when they could have escaped to help their co-workers get out of the buildings. Many people suffer innocently, but only those who willingly risk suffering for the sake of others can truly be called heroes. Hebrews 11 contains a list of people who are often called heroes of the faith, and many of them risked their own lives--and sometimes lost their lives--for the sake of others, because of their faith in God. Why would people risk their own lives to save others? Why would people even risk their reputations and job security to act on behalf of others? They wouldn't, unless they were people of faith, people of integrity, and people of courage. The world has always been mesmerized by people of wealth and power, but without faith, integrity, and courage, their fame is only transient. In Greek mythology, only those of noble or divine birth could become heroes. In real life, anyone can be a hero, if they're willing to take risks in the name of good and for the sake of others. The greatest hero of all, the author of Hebrews says, is Jesus, who willingly gave his own life to become the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Faith, integrity, and courage: do we have what it takes to be a hero?

Luke 12:49-56 (first published 15 August 2004)

During Advent Christians read the passage in Isaiah which foretells the coming of the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace, and we apply these appellations to Jesus. During Holy Week we remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, "meek and lowly," coming as a bearer of peace rather than as a warrior king. We recall some of Jesus' last words to his disciples, "My peace I leave with you." How then do we interpret this reading from Luke, where Jesus says, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!"? Jesus then talks about divisions within the family, presumably over allegiance to Jesus and his teachings. Historically, some Christians have taken these words as sanction to unleash horrors in the name of Christ. The Crusades were a brutal attempt to wrest the "Holy Land" from the Muslims, during which supposedly Christian warriors behaved in most un-Christian ways, slaughtering soldiers and civilians alike, raping, pillaging, and destroying in the name of Christ. The "Christian monarchs" of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, drove the Jews from Spain on pain of death if they would not convert, and this hatred of the Jews continued for centuries, reaching its nadir in the Holocaust. Catholics and Protestants fought one another in various European wars over the centuries, all in the name of Christ. All these Christian soldiers marched to war using Jesus' words as an excuse to hate and kill their fellow human beings. Is that really what Jesus had in mind? I don't think so. I think that Jesus was saying to his followers, "It will take real courage and conviction to follow me. Not everyone, even in your own families, will want to follow me. But if you really are my disciples, you will follow me, standing for what is right and true, no matter the consequences." If Jesus came to create divisions, it was only divisions caused by separation from the mundane, the common, the selfishness of the masses. Too many people are "looking out for number one," and not enough are looking out for the welfare of others, but that's what Jesus calls his disciples to do. Jesus came to bring peace, yes, but peace with justice. Until we reach that state in the world, there will always be a reason for Christians to separate themselves from the masses and call for the creation of a world in which peace and justice reign supreme.