Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
The Prophetic Role - Views and Counterviews Gleaned from Various Sources
"Really great works," writes Flaubert, "have a serene look. Through small openings one perceives precipices; down at the bottom there is darkness, vertigo; but above the whole soars something singularly sweet. That is the ideal of light, the smiling of the sun; and how calm it is. calm and strong!... The highest and hardest thing in art seems to me to be to create a state of reverie."
The very opposite applies to the words of the prophet. They suggest a disquietude sometimes amounting to agony. Yet there are interludes when one perceives an eternity of love hovering over moments of anguish; at the bottom there is light, fascination, but above the whole soar thunder and lightning.
The prophet's use of emotional and imaginative language, concrete in diction, rhythmical in movement, artistic in form, marks his style as poetic. Yet is it not the sort of poetry that takes its origin, to use Wordsworth's phrase. "from emotion recollected in tranquility." Far from reflecting a state of inner harmony or poise, its style is charged with agitation, anguish, and a spirit of non acceptance. The prophet's concern is not with nature but with history, and history is devoid of poise.
Authentic utterance derives from a moment of identification of a person and a word; its significance depends upon the urgency and magnitude of its theme. The prophet's theme is, first of all, the very life of a whole people, and his identification lasts more than a moment. He is one not only with what he says; he is involved with his people in what his words foreshadow. This is the secret of the prophet's style: his life and soul are at stake in what he says and in what is going to happen to what he says. It is an involvement that echoes on. What is more, both theme and identification are seen in three dimensions. Not only the prophet and the people, but God Himself is involved in what the words convey.
Prophetic utterance is rarely cryptic, suspended between God and man; it is urging, alarming, forcing onward, as if the words gushed forth from the heart of God, seeking entrance to the heart and mind of man, carrying a summons as well as an involvement. Grandeur, not dignity, is important. The language is luminous and explosive, firm and contingent, harsh and compassionate, a fusion of contradictions.
The prophet seldom tells a story, but casts events. He rarely sings, but castigates. He does more than translate reality into a poetic key: he is a preacher whose purpose is not self-expression or "the purgation of emotions," but communication. His images must not shine, they must burn.
The prophet is intent on intensifying responsibility, is impatient of excuse, contemptuous of pretense and self-pity. His tone, rarely sweet or caressing, is frequently consoling and disburdening; his words are often slashing, even horrid designed to shock rather than to edify.
The mouth of the prophet is "a sharp sword.' He is "a polished arrow" taken out of the quiver of God (Na. 49:2).
Tremble, you women who are at ease, Shudder, you complacent ones;
Strip, and make yourselves bare, Gird sackcloth upon your loins.
Reading the words of the prophets is a strain on the emotions, wrenching one's conscience from the state of suspended animation.
Abraham J. Heschel: The Prophets. Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia 1962, pp. 6 f.
"Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: 'What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings' houses. Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, "Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare the way before thee."..." (Mt. 11:7-15).
Buber once said, in a conversation, that if a man has the gift of listening, he can hear the voice of Jesus himself speaking in the late accounts of the gospels. This authentic note can, I think, be detected in Jesus' comments on the Baptist. These are at once simple and profound, naive and full of paradox, tempestuous and yet calm. Can anyone plumb their ultimate depths?
Jesus was addressing those who had made their pilgrimage out into the wilderness to see the new prophet. That was no place to find courtiers in fine clothes, who live in palaces, and bend like a reed in the wind to every change of opinion... The reed outlives the storm because it bends to the wind, whereas a stronger tree, that refuses to bend, is often uprooted by the storm.
David Flusser: Jesus, Herder & Herder, New York 1968, pp. 38 ff.
Sometimes the approach to the Jews takes the form of saying they should recognize Jesus as a prophet or even as the greatest prophet. This does not quite make sense to a Jew either. A Jew would not want to confess that Jesus was aprophet. He would ask whether there was evidence to show that Jesus belonged to the class of prophets. And even if the answer was Yes it would not be decisive for Judaism as a whole because Jesus lived after Old Testament times. Judaism would require a council to decide the issue, but there has never been an official body in Judaism to make dogmatic decisions. Even if every Jew accepted that Jesus was a prophet that would be the result of scholarly conviction and not an expression of faith.
David Flusser: "Jesus: To What Extent is Jesus a Question for the Jews?" in Concilium. Vol. 7/8, No. 10, Sept.-Oct. 1976, p. 164.
The Prophet Jesus
An unbiased reading of the Synoptic evidence reveals that sympathetic witnesses of his Galilean activity recognized Jesus as either John the Baptist, Elijah or a prophet, a view apparently shared by the entourage of Herod Antipas, with the possible hint at the notion of a prophet redivivus. The crowd, on his entry into Jerusalem, also refers to him as "the prophet Jesus. from Nazareth in Galilee". It should be added that the characterization "prophet" is not just a deliberate answer to a specific question, but reflects the spontaneous admiration of people convinced of having witnessed a miracle. The account of the raising of the dead youth in Nain concludes with the comment:
Deep awe fell upon them all, and they praised God. "A great prophet has arisen among us", they said.
Popular belief in the prophetic talent of Jesus may furthermore be proved negatively from the doubtful, disapproving, or plainly ironical attitude towards this view manifested by his opponents. His Pharisee host, shocked to see Jesus permitting a prostitute to anoint him, questions his prophetic insight:
"If this fellow were a real prophet, he would know who this woman is that touches him, and what sort of woman she is, a sinner."
In Jerusalem, the chief priests and their advisers dared not arrest him, for although they attached little weight to their opinion,
they were afraid of the people, who looked on Jesus as a prophet.
Finally, after Jesus has been captured, blind folded and scourged, the members of the Sanhedrin. or more probably the high priest's men, are credited with the mocking question:
"Now, prophet, who hit you?"
The common assumption held by New Testament interpreters appears to be that the prophetic image of Jesus was conceived by friendly outsiders. but that, not being good enough, not sufficiently suitable within the circle of his closer companions, it was replaced by more fitting titles. That this was not, in fact, the case is shown by the obituary attributed to one of the Emmaus disciples two days after Jesus' death. He was, Cleopas says,
"a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people."
Furthermore, one of the earnest "Christologies" surviving in the Acts of the Apostles, despite signs of doctrinal progress, is still content to envisage Jesus as the prophet similar to Moses.
More important still, the opinion of friends and associates seems to coincide with Jesus' own concept of himself. According to a statement reported by all three evangelists, and an additional saying preserved in Luke alone, he not only thought of himself as a prophet, but also ascribed to his prophetic destiny every unpleasantness that was to happen to him. He shrugs off the disappointment caused by his family's rejection of him in Nazareth with the words:
"A prophet will always be held in honour except in his home town, and among his kinsmen and family."
In the same spirit, he declares irrelevant the news that Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, has set out to kill him:
"It is unthinkable for a prophet to meet his death anywhere but in Jerusalem."
Doubtless, it would be an exaggeration to claim that Jesus positively declared himself to be a prophet, since neither saying is an answer to an express question; in fact, both may rely on existing, though not otherwise attested, proverbs. Nonetheless, the indirect nature of the argument has if anything a strengthening effect: Jesus' conviction that he was a prophet serves as a premise solid enough to allow him to draw a conclusion from it.
The saying attributed to the disciples on the road to Emmaus "a prophet mighty in deed" and the words following Jesus' prophetic self-appraisal "he could work no miracle" in Nazareth suggest that the terms "prophet" and "miracle-worker" were used synonymously by himand his followers. This peculiarity is the more remarkable since the miraculous element is absent from the idea of prophecy when it is used critically by the opponents of Jesus. For the Pharisaic host and the jeering servants of the high priest, prophecy is merely an intellectual gift and implies a knowledge of secrets.
As his prophetic mission consisted essentially in charismatic activity, Jesus ranged himself, and was ranged by his friends, with Elijah and Elisha, two biblical characters primarily conceived as wonder-workers in inter-Testamental Judaism. Apart from the obvious dependence of several evangelical accounts on parallel stories in the Books of Kings the raising of the son of the widow from Nain may be compared to similar acts attributed to Elijah in Zarephath and to Elisha in Shunem, and the feeding of a crowd by Jesus to Elisha's provision of a hundred men with food a distinct link with the two prophets is positively acknowledged by Jesus when, in connection with his own departure from Nazareth, he cites Elijah and Elisha as the models of the prophet unrespected at home:
"No prophet is recognized in his own country. There were many widows in Israel .. . in Elijah's time... yet it was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but to a widow at Sarepta in the territory of Sidon..."
Such a parallel, especially that with Elijah, raises the question of a relationship between the prophetic reputation and self-awareness of Jesus, and the concept of the charismatic Hasid...
In fact, the belief professed by his contem- poraries that Jesus was a charismatic prophet rings so authentic, ... that the correct historical question is not whether such an undogmatic Galilean concept was ever in vogue, but rather how, and under what influence, it was ever given an eschatological twist.
Geza Vermes: Jesus the Jew, Collins, London 1973, pp. 87 ff.
SCHALOM BEN CHORIN
Jesus among the Tannaim
From the nineteenth century on, a liberal theology, active in Judaism as well, has willingly presented Jesus as a prophet... What is it that characterizes the prophet, the nabi? It is his ministry as one who announces the word...
The prophetic word often begins with such expressions as: "Thus speaks the Lord" or "Hear the word of the Lord"... Such expressions are found nowhere among the words of Jesus. He speaks on his own authority, without having to transmit or to make public the decisions of God...
The characteristic features of the prophets in the Old Testament meaning of the term are not found in Jesus. He seems to fit in rather with the !Doctors of the Law of his time, the Tannaim. The tannaitic character lies in the fact that Jesus lust like the Doctors of the Law of his epoch used two rather typical methods in their teaching: they commented on the canonical texts which they quoted, and they made use of meshalim or parables. In this way, Jesus may be seen among his contemporaries, the Doctors of the Law.
Schalom Ben Chorin: Mon Frere Jesus, Seuil, Paris 1983. pp. 15 f.
Are There Prophets in the Church Today?
The reply to this question can only be positive. Not only are there prophets in the Church. but we cannot pass them by...
The Christian prophet has the mission of making the Word, that is to say, Jesus Christ, present, not in repeating it, but by making it a real Word for today. In doing so, he/she necessarily shows the inadequacy, the distance which separates the Word from the "reality" which is lived by believers. either as individuals or as a community. It is true that no-one likes being shown the discrepancybetween his words and his actions, still less when one represents an institution.
In the texts of the Old Testament, moreover, we see clearly that prophets arose in communities through the exclusive initiative of God... It is difficult to imagine a true prophet who did not come into conflict with authority at one time or another.
In the Church, prophets are not appointed by any-one. They are raised up by the Spirit alone. The Church, the community of believers, has the role of listening to them, discerning them and recognizing them, without either undue haste or excessive delay...
The Christian prophet, like his Old Testament counterpart, will often be argued against during his ministry, rejected or listened to, and it will only be after his death that sufficient distance will make possible a final discernment. Like his precedessors, it is always only after his death that the prophet will be accorded his true prophetic dimension. The life of the prophet is always a sign of contradiction.
Are there Christian prophets in the Church today? Yes, as there have always been. To believe in the relevance of God for today is to believe in the presence of prophets among us in order to speak His Word to us. To believe in the fidelity of God for his Church is to believe that he will not let it sleep, be engulfed, lose its strength and the dynamism of its hope. For this reason, Jesus Christ. the prophet, is present through the intermediary of men and women prophets who, each one in his or her own way, according to place and time, will make present the Word which gives life to all those who believe in Him.
Jesus Asurmendi: Le Prophetisme, Nouvelle Cite, Paris 1985. pp. 164 ff.