The Common Good
July 2007

Called to be Prophets

by Malinda Elizabeth Berry | July 2007

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary Cycle C.

This month's readings bring to life Elijah, Elisha, Amos, and Hosea, prophets who turn up the heat on the status quo. They show us how God speaks through flame, smoke, water, and wind. Through poems, songs, stories, and powerful monologues, prophets are God's representatives in human history.

In their introduction to The Inclusive Hebrew Scriptures: The Prophets, Craig Smith and Mark Buckley explain both the definition and role of a prophet. "Prophet" means "to speak for," which means the prophet also shares what Abraham Heschel calls "the pathos of God's heart." The prophet listens to, understands, and finally proclaims a message that comes from the very heart of God.

The four prophets, using the language of repentance, call the children of Abraham to return to faithful living. God's uniqueness, faithfulness to covenant, justice, and kindness all mingle to create a portrait of God that confuses and distresses as much as it reveals. But this is not a bad place to be. As Smith and Buckley write, "Prophets revive our capacity to feel and draw our attention to what we would rather not see."

Paired with stories of Jesus' ministry from Luke's gospel, episodes from the prophets' lives can take on new meaning in a world that desperately needs to hear righteous words of judgment and healing. These words can save us from ourselves, but only if we are willing to be led to God's heart.

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

July 1
Refining Fire
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

As a child, an illustration in my sister's Bible especially caught my eye. It was of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. I hadn't remembered this story from Sunday school, or at least it failed to make an impression on me. But I was fascinated by this illustration.

The phrase "chariot of fire" rang a bell, but that was because the Academy Award-winning film Chariots of Fire was in circulation then. The title of that film, which tells the story of the 1924 British track and field Olympians, comes from Charles H. H. Parry's famous hymn "Jerusalem," which contains lines from a poem written by William Blake. The second verse contains the reference to Elijah's ascension into heaven: "Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring me my arrows of desire! Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire!"

Fire and the refining heat it creates make this passage from 2 Kings dramatic, to be sure, but the ethereal chariot is fitting for this prophetic figure who spent his career calling people to come back to Yahweh, the one true God.

July 8
Prophetic Care
2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6:1-6, 7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Naaman's story from 2 Kings 5 is one of those stories from Sunday school I do remember learning as a child. Perhaps it was the young servant girl who caught my attention. She hears of her master's illness and suggests that Naaman see the Hebrew prophet living in Samaria. Naaman's king sends him to the king's counterpart in Israel, thinking the person who has the ability to heal this great general must be a king. But the healer is Elisha, the bald man with extraordinary abilities to perform signs and wonders in Yahweh's name.

There is an obvious connection between the Hebrew Bible and New Testament readings for this week. In Luke 10, 70 followers are commissioned. "Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you," Jesus instructs them. "Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you'" (Luke 10:8-9).

The healing ministry belongs to regular folks who are willing to embrace the prophetic nature of caring for others. The kingdom belongs to those who have the faith of a child that those working in God's name can make a difference where there is sickness and pain.

July 15
God's Plumb Line
Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

In The Women's Bible Commentary, biblical scholar Judith Sanderson writes that Amos' career as a prophet focused on two interrelated concerns: how wealthy the powerful people have become and the fact that they have amassed their wealth by exploiting the poor. All of this means the people have turned away from God's preferential option for the poor and the understanding that widows, orphans, and sojourners, among others, are to be cared for as a matter of social justice.

Amos' style of prophecy is rich in images, whether he characterizes rich women as overfed cows (Amos 4:1), sees baskets of summer fruit (Amos 8:1–2), or discerns the meaning of locusts and plumb lines (Amos 7:1, 7). We are familiar with God's words of judgment from Amos 5:21: "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies." It is painful to feel distanced from God like this. And it is easy to feel like a victim by Amos' words. "I'm really trying to do the right thing and be godly here. I can't just give everything away—that ivory bed was a gift! I thought you wanted us to 'be at peace and unafraid,' and now you're telling me I'm being selfish and not trying hard enough to show I love God?"

What does it take to earn God's respect and not simply yearn for God's approval? Jesus' parable about the Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) seems to provide us with an answer: Show mercy. Mercy is different than charity. Mercy brings together generosity, grace, and love—it is not simply forgiving a person to whom you have no obligation or feel morally superior. Mercy calls us to follow Amos' plumb line down into the depths of our own soul, a place that is not hidden from God, but a place that God can illuminate with truth and understanding.

July 22
Share the Better Part
Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

'Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land. ... Surely I will never forget any of their deeds" (Amos 8:4, 7). Amos does not mince words—they burn like hot coals or the scorching sun. In our current political climate of failed foreign policy in the Middle East, I feel the heat of Amos' condemnation. I think of Rev. Nathan Baxter's words spoken in the wake of 9/11 and quoted by Rep. Barbara Lee as she stood alone, opposing the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan which started three days later: "Let us not become the evil we deplore."

To be honest, I think that moment has come and gone, but my hope is that we can still turn back. We can repent, be converted, and do what is right, good, and just in God's eyes. Sometimes the choices we need to make are obvious, other times they are not, and there are many times when what we think is obvious is much more complicated. The relationship between Mary and Martha is one of these places in scripture where what seems obvious simply isn't.

Scholars note the many interpretations of Luke's description of Martha and Mary's conflict (Luke 10:38-42). I find myself drawn to conflict that presents itself as good, old–fashioned sibling rivalry, which is an apt image for our current political state of affairs. The U.S. Christian community is acting a lot like Mary and Martha. We are a family of siblings who compete with each other for attention, prestige, and the approval of powerful people in our spheres of influence; we boast about who has the closest relationship with high-profile celebrities and politicians. But Jesus and Amos both want us to have our share in the better part, for us to know that we can change our ways.

July 29
Understanding Biblical Violence
Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13

Of all the prophets whose work is recorded in the Hebrew Bible, Hosea's book is probably the one most scrutinized by feminist biblical scholars and theologians. Writing in The Women's Bible Commentary, Gale Yee explains that "Hosea is the first to employ the metaphor of husband for the deity, casting Israel in negative female imagery as God's adulterous wife."

While this metaphor makes sense in the imagination of ancient Israel, we who are riding the third and fourth waves of feminism are not quite sure what to think. Yee describes why alarms go off for Christians who take interpersonal violence and violence against women seriously: "This theology [in Hosea] interprets the divine as male and the sinful as female. Using this imagery, the prophet describes God's legitimate punishment as physical violence against the wife by her husband. The problem arises when the metaphorical character of the biblical image is forgotten and a husband's physical abuse of his wife becomes as justified as is God's retribution against Israel."

On the door connecting the garage to the rest of my childhood house, my mother stuck a bumper sticker that read, "World peace begins at home." Biblical violence must be dealt with and talked about lest our silence around this issue be mistaken as assent to the idea that retributive violence against another person is godly. Hosea is one of those places where we have to read the whole book to truly understand its meaning; excerpting one short passage distorts the text's meaning.

In the gospel reading, Jesus' instruction to pray that God's will in heaven also be made known on earth gives us insight into the judgment that Hosea brings. We must hold ourselves as individuals and communities to this vision of justice, that all life on earth will "flourish like a garden" (Hosea 14:7).

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