What is a Prophet?

When my kids were little, they taught me honesty.  It wasn’t that I was a horrible liar before, but when I had kids every word, every action was scrutinized just a little bit more.  I remember one day I went to the grocery store with all four kids, a feat in its own right.  We got the things we came for, purchased our items and headed to the car.  I loaded all of the kids into their car seats and loaded the groceries into the back of my minivan, when I discovered, buried under some toy, one item from my shopping list that I accidentally had not paid for.  If it was just me, I might have thrown the item in the car and not given it a second thought. On maybe one of my better days, I may have just left it in the cart and let the next person deal with it.  But with eight little eyeballs all staring at me I knew I had to do the right thing, so I unloaded all the kids, went back into the grocery store, got back in line and paid for it.  In some ways my kids are like little prophets coming along behind me, letting me know when I am crossing some moral line.  Sometimes it is with words; sometimes it is with their watchful eyes waiting for me do the right thing in spite of my lazy or somedays wayward heart.  Prophets are a little like kids but less cute.  They are the pebble in Israel’s sandal.  Poking, prodding, demanding that the right things be done.  But it is more as well; prophets are not just the angel on Israel’s shoulder, the voice of consciousness for a people; they were doing something much bigger.  Prophets were offering the people a view of what the world could be like, what in fact the world should be like.

The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann is a classic text for most seminary students.  It talks about the role of the prophet in the Old Testament focusing specifically on Moses and then moves forward to discuss how we can be prophets in our own times and spaces.  Brueggemann writes, “Something new happened in history with the Exodus and the Moses movement.  On the one hand, Moses intended the dismantling of the oppressive empire of Pharaoh; and on the other hand, he intended the formation of a new community focused on the religion of God’s freedom and the politics of justice and compassion.  The dismantling begins in the groans and complaints of his people; the energizing begins in the doxologies of the new community.”[1]  Moses sought a new social order that was based on God’s shalom or wholeness for all of creation.  Brueggemann says, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”[2]  Meaning that to be a prophet is to imagine the world differently than it is today.  Being a prophet is not necessarily tied to a particular issue, although it can be, rather it is looking at the world with kingdom glasses and pointing out all the places that are not right when the glasses come off.

Prophets of the Old Testament, even prophets of today, come off as being critical, even angry about things that people do not seem to care about.  Soraya Chemaly, in Rage Becomes Her (and everyone should buy this book for the title alone) says, “anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of all our emotions.  It begets transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world.  It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation, and moral disorder.  It bridges the divide between what “is” and what “ought” to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility.”[3]   Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and finds the Hebrew people worshiping a golden calf of their own making, and he is furious.  Furious because the people have gone back to their old ways, furious because he realizes the work that is still to come.  He is the bridge standing between slavery and freedom in God, and he has a lot of things to do to get people from here to there.

All Christians are essentially prophets.  We understand that we live in a world where the kingdom has come but is still coming into full reality.  It is to this kingdom that we belong to.  But it is not totally here, so like Moses, we realize there is a lot of work to be done.  We put on our kingdom glasses, and when we take them off we point out, we annoy, we yell, we get angry, we roll up our shirt sleeves, we get to work until what we see with our glasses on is what we see when they are off.

Next week:  Women Leaders as Prophets


[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) 115.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Soraya Chemaly, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger (New York: Atria Books, 2018) xx.

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