Is there anything more annoying in this world than a prophet of God? With fanatical fervor and wide-eyed zealousness, prophets gaze on the world boldly declaring the ways in which we fail to embody God’s wishes for it.
Of course, those who seem to live at the expense of others, well, they are a favorite topic of scorn and ridicule for prophets, aren’t they? Whether it’s a king or some other ruler not looking after the least among us, or fancily dressed priests who are more concerned with ritual than neighbor love, prophets speak with fire and brimstone about such grave injustices. Or as the prophet Micah so famously put it, “O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Is it any wonder that someone else was once able to write, “There is no evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for supper more than once.”
Of course, as annoying as they can be, such dissenting voices of prophets, whether from days of old or from the immediate present, well, they’re much needed, aren’t they? After all, if there is one thing we humans are good at, it is fooling ourselves when it comes to the truth and God’s wishes for the world.
Yep, while we all have our own particular sins to lug around with us as we move through life, there are also those sins which seem to touch us collectively. And surely one of them is our habit of tacitly assuming truth is something that is easily self-evident and that can be picked out of the air like wildflowers while walking through a field.
And for proof of such a habit, for proof that we can be a bit quick to assume we’ve landed squarely on the truth without putting for much effort, all we need to do is take a quick glance at the pages of history. After all, blithely believing they had seized on the truth, the Nazis decided it was perfectly okay to start hoarding Jews into concentration camps to gas and burn them.
Likewise, sure the practice of segregation was a self-evident truth that came straight out of the Bible, we created Jim Crow laws in this nation to relegate people of color to side entryways, separate water fountains, and seats at the back of the bus.
And the fact that we weren’t necessarily malicious about it only proves the point. As most folks who grew up in that era will tell us, there was just sort of a “givenness” to it all. Sure, there was a blatant ugliness to the Jim Crow laws for some people, but for most folks it was just assumed that was the way the world was supposed to be.
So we need God’s prophets, don’t we? As annoying as they can be, we need them to challenge our assumptions about the world and our collective habit of assuming we’ve got the truth all locked up into a tight little box. For without God’s prophets to challenge us, we can give ourselves permission to do all kinds of crazy and hurtful things.
In his intriguing book The Gospel According To America, David Dark writes of his father and his approach to the Bible.
“Like many Americans” writes Dark “my father was haunted by the Bible. Figuring out what it said, what it all meant, and how to live a life somehow faithful to it was a lifelong obsession.”
Dark then goes on to describe how such a continual quest by his father tended to make him leery of those who liked to throw out platitudes when it came to the Bible. Since the Bible for Dark’s father was anything but easy to grasp or get a full handle on, he was quick to take note of certain phrases that might get tossed out to defend a particular position. Lines like “It’s biblical,” or “Well, the Bible says,” were seen as dangerous free-wheeling claims in need of scrutiny and stiff analysis.
Needless to say, if a person was going to use or quote the Bible around Dark’s father, he or she had better be ready to defend their position.
For Dark’s father, like so many of God’s prophets, seemed to understand that just because people might say “Lord, Lord!” that hardly meant they were being faithful to Scripture. Or as Dark writes when it came to his Father, “… the Bible belonged to everyone and no one. It was nobody’s property. Always dangerous, a double-edged sword. Like absolute truth, it’s out there, but anyone who presumed to own its copyright was criminally insane.”
And so it went for Dark’s father, when it came to the Bible. While surely a Word of God, it was an ever mysterious one that required constant engagement, exploration, and reflection.
Well, surely not a bad way to gather around the Bible even now. In a din filled world of competing voices, ideologies, and trite talking points that get tossed out by talking heads on all sides, perhaps it’s good to be reminded that truth, at least when it comes to the Bible, is always a double-edged sword.
While it’s surely out there, to presume we own the copyright to it is more than just criminally insane. It’s probably also a sin of the highest order.
The Rev. Stephen Yates is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Destin.