Not Wanted: Prophets in the Church


Luke 13:31-35

prophetProphets aren’t the most liked of people. In religious communities, they are in the same league as heretics because they don’t go along with tradition. Unfortunately, the people they offend think they have a license to kill in the name of tradition.

Jerusalem is a biblical symbol for institutional religion—and maybe even any kind of institution/governing body like the board of directors of a corporation, congress, etc. When “Jerusalem” is mentioned the Bible, substitute the word “church” and you might find it applies remarkably well with the 21st century. No institution likes to be challenged as being wrong. Nor does it like to be told it is placing its own existence and interests ahead of what it has been established to serve (also called idolatry).

Jesus said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her…Look your household is abandoned to you. I tell you, you will not see me until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name [goodness] of the Lord.” Prophets come in the goodness of God.

People get upset when you mess with their traditions – when you mess with the way they’ve always done things. Isaiah came and told the Jews that God didn’t want their showy fasts of ashes and sackcloth – he said the kind of fast God wants is for you to take care of the poor and other justice issues. Manasseh, king of Judah (Jerusalem) sawed Isaiah in two with a wooden saw.

Amos prophesied that Israel would be led into captivity because it wasn’t following God’s will. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, tortured and killed him. Habakkuk prophesied concerning the Messiah, that He would come and nullify the laws of the Jews. The Jews stoned him in Jerusalem. Jeremiah rebuked the Jews for worshipping idols. They stoned him in Egypt. Ezekiel rebuked the chief of the Jews in Chaldea for worshipping idols, and was killed.  Zechariah was killed between the steps and the altar (in Jerusalem) by Joash the king, and his blood sprinkled upon the horns of the altar.

Most Bibles translate Jesus as saying, “It cannot be that a prophet should perish outside Jerusalem.” But that really can’t be taken literally. Jeremiah was stoned to death in Egypt, Ezekiel in Chaldea, and Amos presumably in Bethel. I think it means something more like, “It is not possible for a prophet to be destroyed outside [without the influence/sanction/endorsement of] the religious institution.”

Religious institutions are notorious for protecting themselves. Prophets say things contrary to traditional church teaching and have been put to death for it. Jon Hus was a priest who came a hundred year earlier than Martin Luther, saying many of the same things Luther said. The church burned him at the stake. Luther was kidnapped by his own friends and hidden in a castle for a year to protect him from the institutional church.

Jesus said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you kill the prophets and stone those sent to you—how often I wanted to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing, but you did not want it.” People don’t want change. Many defend the institutional church because it’s the foundation on which they base their faith. Anyone who challenges the teachings of the church, challenges the foundation of those who idolize it. And when you rock someone’s foundation, it feels like an earthquake under their feet.

I recently attended a memorial service where the preacher quoted so much scripture as undeniable truth that I wondered if he had anything to say in his own words. Prophets say new things, different things from what is written. Prophets speak what God speaks to them. They don’t have to look in a book to understand what God wants. They speak from the mouth of God who dwells in their hearts.

In Martin Luther’s sermon on John 10:1-11, he places the responsibility for who we listen to directly on the sheep. “Remember well that the sheep have to pass judgment upon that which is placed before them…” and in the sermon on John 10:11-16, “Christ says his sheep hear his voice and not a stranger’s…For he and his kingdom and church are bound neither to Moses’s Law or Judaism, although they were instituted by God, much less to the government of the pope and bishops, established by themselves.” These are quotes in my book of prayers based on Martin Luther’s sermons.

Life can’t go on without change. Nature shows us that. New air comes in, old air is expelled. New building blocks of matter come in, waste goes out. Nothing stays the same unless it’s dead. We must have a constant exchange with our environment in order to remain healthy and strong. A church that doesn’t do that is dead.

We need more prophets to speak out and shake the foundations of the church so that it can rise again—not for its own sake but for the sake of the poor, the blind, the lame, the sick, the imprisoned, and to usher in the forgiveness of all debts.

I think Jesus lived as long as he did because he didn’t spend much of his time or ministry inside the confining walls of Jerusalem. What do you think?

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