Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 28, 2024
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 Commentary
Judges, Kings, Priests and Prophets – oh my!
Up to this point in Deuteronomy, the law has spelled out the role of kings and judges and priests. Each is invested with a distinct kind of institutional authority. However, over time, in the history of Israel and her people, these roles began to take on a rigid function in which “public power structures based on these roles easily became inflexible. They tended to become detached from actual personal needs, and so became unresponsive to the changing religious and social circumstances of the community.”
So, the recounter of Israel’s history in the book of Deuteronomy pivots to the corrective role of the prophet in the community of faith.” As opposed to institutional rigidity, “prophets offered a measure of corrective challenge and the possibility of innovation.” Looking back on the whole of Hebrew Scriptures, we see how this role played out as intended in later actors like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Hosea. However, in the context of the book of Deuteronomy, which recounts the history of God’s people ahead of their entrance into the promised land, their model of a prophet was someone more like Moses. A prophet like Moses is raised up in the community and set apart from it to speak God’s work into it. According to Walter Brueggemann, “The primary requirement for the prophet…is that he or she must be a member of Israel, thoroughly situated in the traditions and claims of the Yahwistic covenant. The text seems to assume a single prophet in time to come, though it is possible in the perspective of Deuteronomy that the verse envisions a succession of prophets, each of whom reenacts the role of Moses.”
The role of a prophet is to unsettle the settled. Prophets, so goes the adage, “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” The church is unfortunately filled with prophets who love to speak the truth— who wield words as weapons, ginning up outrage in an already outrageous culture, who walk away from their prophetic work relieved to have “gotten that off my chest” while the congregation sits shell-shocked and uncertain how to proceed. A prophet of Moses vintage, speaks the truth in love. One commentator refers to the role of prophet as laid out in the Deuteronomic code as one who will serve as “an authorized mediator, an intercessor and a teacher of the law.” If that sounds familiar, well, it’s supposed to.
Turn to Jesus
In the wisdom of the Lectionary, this Sunday’s text from Hebrew Scripture is paired with the story of Jesus preaching in Capernaum. The people listening in the synagogue “were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Then, after healing a demon-possessed man, they again exclaim, “”What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” Although we are still in the first chapter of Mark at this point, the parallels to and fulfillments of Hebrew Scripture needn’t be lost on us and will only continue to grow as the story of Jesus’ life unfolds.
Not only do prophets unsettle the institution … they are God-appointed in this role to offer necessary corrective and balance for healthy community life. There are any number of real-world examples, depending on easy might prove uncomfortable but not over-the-top in your congregational setting: whistle-blowers, unions, journalists, organizations that investigate church abuse allegations (someone like Rachael Denhollander.)
A literary character who possesses many of the same qualities as a prophet, according to this lectionary text, would be the title character in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. His birth was tragic, he was a member of the community and best friend to the book’s narrator, John Wheelwright but, due to his short stature and his outsized voice (captured in the book through the use of all caps), was always somewhat outside the community to. His insights into people and his sense of being called by God for some purpose demonstrate his prophetic character. As to unsettling the institution, well, how about this exchange between young Owen and his pastor?
“LOOK AT THOSE WEIRDO TV MIRACLE-WORKERS—THEY’RE TRYING TO GET PEOPLE TO BELIEVE IN MAGIC! BUT THE REAL MIRACLES AREN’T ANYTHING YOU CAN SEE—THEY’RE THINGS YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE WITHOUT SEEING. IF SOME PREACHER’S A [JERK], THAT NOT PROOF THAT GOD DOESN’T EXIST.”
“Yes, but let’s not say [jerk] in class, Owen,” Pastor Merrill said.
And in our Scripture class, Owen said, “IT’S TRUE THAT THE DISCIPLES ARE STUPID — THEY NEVER UNDERSTAND WHAT JESUS MEANS, THEY’RE A BUNCH OF BUNGLERS, THEY DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD AS MUCH AS THEY WANT TO BELIEVE, AND THEY EVEN BETRAY JESUS. THE POINT IS, GOD DOESN’T LOVE US BECAUSE WE’RE SMART OR BECAUSE WE’RE GOOD. WE’RE STUPID AND WE’RE BAD AND GOD LOVES US ANYWAY—JESUS ALREADY TOLD THE DISCIPLES WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN. ‘THE SON OF MAN WILL BE DELIVERED INTO THE HANDS OF MEN, AND THEY WILL KILL HIM…’ REMEMBER? THAT WAS IN MARK—RIGHT?”
But although he struggled to defend God’s Holy Word, Lewis Merrill—for the first time, in my memory—appeared to be enjoying himself. To have his faith assailed perked him up; he was livelier and less meek.
When aptly executed, this is the wonderful, restorative work of a prophet. To love the institution enough to challenge it, to love the community enough to push and to love people enough to poke at them until they are perked up, livelier and less meek.
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