During the Advent season many of us enjoy a deep appreciation for the Prophetic tradition. The first lectionary reading during this liturgical season is usually from the tradition of the written Prophets; these include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah and others. During this season we stand in awe of these amazing people who were given the gift of prophesy by God and we are inspired by their prophecy concerning the coming of Christ. Many of us, including myself, make the mistake of assuming that these were people of great honor and prestige but that is not the case. When we read the Prophetic writings beyond the lectionary excerpt we find that these were men who challenged society with advice and guidance that was almost totally countercultural and they paid the price by being persecuted and ridiculed. We are right in being able to identify the divine wisdom that flows from their prophesies but to the people of Israel or Judah their challenging words were not welcomed.
In chapter 28 from the book of Jeremiah we have an event that was by no means isolated. Micah, Amos and Isaiah speak of false prophets. These are people who claim to be prophets but instead of challenging the people with the precepts of following the way set down by God they offer a message of social comfort and hallow promises of military invincibility. In Chapter 28 Jeremiah has a prophetic duel with the prophet Hananiah. The context for the duel is the emerging conflict between the Kingdom of Judah and Babylon. The Kingdom of Judah is nervous about the military strength of Babylon. The Kings of Jerusalem take up a policy of independence at all cost and focus their economic and political resources on military might and royal domination. In lieu of this they lax their social and religious program known as the deuteronomic reform movement. This movement tied together the nation’s fidelity to God with a social program that promoted justice and right relationship with everyone, especially the foreigner and the marginalized. But for the sake of militarism and royal independence these social and religious programs were scraped. In comes Jeremiah. His challenging advice is to give up. He suggests that the dominance of Babylon is pre-ordained, so accepts the domination under Babylon. Instead of wasting resources against fighting a nation that they cannot hope to defeat they should again prioritize the deuteronomic polices of promoting a national fidelity to God accompanied with social programs of justice to the poor and vulnerable. To make this point Jeremiah parades himself with an Oxen’s yoke around his neck in order to convey the image that the yoke of Babylon will inevitably be tied around the Kingdom of Judah.
The people do not like this message. So in comes an opportunist prophet like Hananiah who gives the people the prophesy they want to hear. He promises people the destruction of Babylon and blessings of peace and prosperity to the kingdom of Judah. He takes the Jeremiah’s yoke and breaks it in front of everyone. Jeremiah walks away seemingly in defeat. But then he comes back after having received another Prophesy from the Lord (it seems that Jeremiah may have second guessed himself after hearing Hananiah’s prophecy) in which case he declares Hananiah a liar and prophesies his death within a year. Jeremiah is vindicated but only for the moment, by chapter 29 he is again attacked by others.
Only history can clarify the authentic from the false prophet. We can no more condemn the people of Judah for choosing Hananiah over Jeremiah then we can condemn our own people for preferring those who promote policies of militarism, national security and economic liberalism over policies to promote peace, social justice and a culture of life. We may not have prophets in the way that the people of Israel and Judah had but today we have think tanks and policy analyst that provide similar services. Churches and religious organizations provide advocacy and programs that continue to offer the social and religious reforms based on a morality that is till based on the basic precepts of justice laid down in the ten commandments and delivered to us also by Christ in his exhortations that basically call us to do the common good and avoid the self-serving evil. But many continue to battle these positions even under the guise of being religious.
The Catholic Church has a program that is based on promoting justice through community organizing called the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). Some Catholic organization and groups have called to abolish this social justice program because of a secular ideology that fears anything that regulates a fundamentally unrestricted market system. The argument I have heard recently against CCHD is to tie community organizing to socialism and to blacken any work of social justice with this fear based label. The social documents of the Catholic Church have made it very clear that it does not serve the interest of the market just as much as it did not serve the interest of the state. The interest is justice and CCHD is a wonderful contribution of the Catholic Church to promote a democratic tool of empowering local communities to become advocates for their own social and economic rights.
The prophetic tradition has laid out a consistent program that accompanies their message. They promote a fidelity to one God. This fidelity is measured by our just and equitable relationship to one another. Micah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea always make a stand for the poor and oppressed and they critique the royal policies that neglect or even rob this marginalized population. Jesus Christ comes in making his stand with the poor and suffers his own Passion and Death. Scripture and tradition has yet to incorporate the teachings of one who asks us to neglect the poor, persecute the marginalized, or disempower the migrant. History will tell us which religious group will be part of our consistent prophetic legacy, but can we not identify them today.