Sunday, February 1, 2009
Who Speaks for Whom?
Massud Farzan, a contemporary Sufi author and Professor Emeritus of English at the Metropolitan College of Boston University, relates a story about a man who was claiming to be God. He was taken to the Caliph who said: "Last year someone was claiming to be a prophet. He was executed." "Serves him right," the man answered, "I hadn't sent him."
God, quoted by Moses, as quoted by the writer(s) of Deuteronomy (18:15-20), spells out as well as anyone could the description and role of a prophet: to be a spokesperson, an intermediary, for God -- not, primarily, a future-teller. "...'I will raise up for them a prophet...from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet...Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak -- that prophet shall die." Pretty strong words!
People in every age have emerged with a prophetic voice: people who, rightly or wrongly, challenge society's institutions and authority. The sticky wicket in all this, of course, is the element of God's inspiration. How does one know? Those who claim they speak for God are a dime a dozen, especially on Sunday morning TV. Others are sincere in their claims, but many times are, unfortunately mistaken. I've always felt this way about Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet.
Paul the Apostle certainly dealt with this issue constantly. Throughout his missionary career there were people in the church communities which he established who deemed themselves spokespersons for the Almighty in the structure, theology, and practices of those communities. In his first letter to the Corinthian Christians (8:1b-12) he notes two kinds of "prophetic" knowledge: 1) the kind which "puffs up": "...Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge..."; and 2) the "knowledge" which comes through exercising God's love to others: "...anyone who loves God is known by God..." Dishonoring others, "sinning" against them, is a sure sign of a false prophet, and no amount of "spiritual knowledge" can justify that.
Mark, in his Gospel (1:21-28) says that it's only Jesus who truly speaks in God's name and, therefore, is qualified as God's prophet, spokesperson, intermediary. Mark depicts this teacher, wonder-worker, and healer from Nazareth as one displaying genuine "authority". In Greek, the word for "authority" is exousia = "from one's own existence or self; mastery; taking charge; presence". Its Latin counterpart is auctoritas = from augere, meaning to "help increase or grow". Jesus silences falsehood and evil in the Gospel because he's the Holy One of God. Jesus builds through love, makes people grow because he knows and is known by God, the source of love.
Probably a good number of us at times hanker to think of ourselves, or even act like, something of a prophet, a loudspeaker for God. All things being equal, it's good that there are prophetic voices in every age. Institutions need to be challenged and held accountable in order to truly serve and build up the common good of humankind. History has repeatedly demonstrated, and boy, do we have reminders of that these days, that institutions, the Church, governments, organizations, banks, etc. don't always ably or honestly fulfill their responsibilities. It's fairly common for those in authority to lose sight of the greater picture, the common good, and grow selfish and corrupt, frequently oppressing and repressing, through misused power and greed, the very people whom God intends them to serve.
That almost makes necessary the appearance of outspoken, zealous, concerned, sometimes angry, people who prick consciences and beam a spotlight on the shortcomings and even willful maliciousness of those who lead or govern. The danger with prophets, however, with anyone who presumes to speak for God, is perspective. Only a person who truly knows and is known by God constantly can maintain any sort of balance. John Wesley gives this sobering advice to aspiring prophets: "Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose voices, dreams, impressions, visions or revelations to be from God. They may be from God. They may be from nature. They may be from the devil."
For those who espouse to follow Jesus, the only true measure of whether or not we authentically speak for the Gospel is Jesus himself. It's interesting in Mark's Gospel that the members of the synagogue at Capernaum "...were astounded at his teaching...as one having authority." Yet the unclean spirit mentioned knew exactly who Jesus was and cowered in fear before him: "...What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." Perhaps we, too, need to continually ask ourselves, as his followers and as citizens of society, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?" We deserve no hearing unless we speak by the authority and presence, and in the name of the Holy One we claim to follow.