Tag Archives: Prophets

The Prophet Amos: Speaking Truth to Power

This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,

“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I  will  never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
      and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
      and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,

`Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
      and Israel must go into exile
      away from his land.'”

And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, `Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'”  Amos 7:7-15.

One of today’s Old Testament readings in the Lectionary comes from the Book of the Prophet Amos.  Amos came from the southern kingdom of Judah, and began his prophetic work  around 750 B.C.  (A few years later, the Northern Kingdom would fall to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.)

During this time, under the rule of Jeroboam II, the Northern Kingdom enjoyed great power and wealth.  As is so often the case during such times, they neglected the poor and the downtrodden. They divorced their religious observance divorced from their sense of social justice and ethics. Although Amos came from Judah, he directed most of his prophetic message at the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

In this passage, God tells Amos that He will measure the people of Israel according to a plumb line.  (The plumb line was an ancient engineering device, using a string, a weight and the force of gravity to determine whether a wall was straight.)  Never a popular strategy, Amos brought the message of God’s disapproval.  He announces the destruction of the Kingdom, the death of the king, and the desolation of their high places. In an apparent reference to the Passover (the meta-narrative of God’s salvation of the Jewish people), Amos reports that God will never pass by them again.

The priest Amaziah reports Amos’ dire warnings to the king.  Rejecting Amos’ message, Amaziah apparently assumes Amos is a professional prophet, and tells him to go back home.  The priest directs Amos to return to the southern kingdom and prophesy there, but Amos continues to proclaim his message of God’s disfavor with the king and the priestly caste.

Amos answers that he does not come from a line of prophets, rather, he makes his living as a shepherd and from agriculture.  Thus, as opposed to the sanctioned, professional prophets of his day (who suggested that Israel’s prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing), Amos claims prophetic authenticity.  Amos claims legitimacy through his status as an outsider.  His message comes from God, rather than from the recognized human authority.

I wonder sometimes how willing we are today to have God’s plumb line held up to our country, or our churches.  Would we be willing to listen to the prophetic voice, or like Amaziah would we tell him to go preach someplace else?  Are we so addicted to the smooth and pleasing words of blessing that we cannot listen to God’s call for things to change?

It’s worth considering the notion that today’s religious authorities may be too closely allied with power.  As Amaziah told Amos while shooing him away, “This is the king’s sanctuary and a temple of the kingdom.”  Those words should terrify us, as we look at the perhaps too easy alliance between empire and ecclesia.  I worry that too many of our churches have “Do Not Disturb” signs on their doors. Rather than cathedrals of conversion, have we erected sanctuaries of the status quo? Amos reminds us that God comes to comfort those who are disturbed, and to disturb those who are comfortable.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Not One Letter, Not One Stroke of a Letter

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Matt. 5:17-20.

In the Gospel from today’s Daily Office, Jesus emphasizes his continuity with God’s message to His people, a message first announced in the law and the prophets.  That continuity shines forth in the story of the Transfiguration, which St. Matthew records at Matt. 17:1-9 and which the icon above depicts.  As God announces Jesus as his beloved Son, Christ appears flanked by Moses and Elijah.  We might wonder, “Why those two heroes of the Old Testament?”  Moses and Elijah, respectively, represented the Law (given by Moses) and the prophets.  Jesus comes as the full flowering, the conclusion or completion of the law and the prophets.

Rather than encouraging his disciples to abandon Scripture, he asks them to take it seriously. Like many of us today, the Pharisees and scribes had read scripture as calling us into a worthiness competition.  We find the perfect example of that view in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  (Luke 18:9-14; see here).  Jesus completes the law and the prophets by showing us that God’s love and grace has nothing to do with our worthiness.

A legalistic vision of Scripture works externally, requiring people to confirm to rules and to require such conformity from those around them.  Jesus calls us to internalize the Scripture, allowing it to transform our hearts so that we can live more deeply into it.  Legalism mistakes the packaging for the contents.  Thus, he tells his disciples that must go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  The impulse to legalism always calls us into a kind of idolatry, in which we substitute performance of a given set of obligations for a relationship with the living God.

Jesus asks us to move forward from the notion of right action to the idea of a right relationship with God. We find an example of what Jesus means in Matthew 23:23.  There, He notes that the Pharisees “tithe mint, dill, and cummin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”  Jesus doesn’t ask us to reject the Law (the Torah), merely to examine the principles which underlie it.  When our principle objective becomes a relationship with the Almighty that pushes us toward justice and mercy and faith, we will read the Law in the right context.

Jesus brings that Law into its fullness, pointing out how narrowly the people had come to understand God’s purposes.  The problem wasn’t that the scribes and Pharisees overvalued the Law; the problem lay in their underestimation of God’s purposes.  Thus, Jesus taught that the good Samaritan actually lived into loving his neighbor, while a more legalistic or superficial view asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29.  Like many of us today, while the scribes may have known exactly what the words of the law said, they had completely missed what they meant.  They had captured the notion of compliance, but missed the blessing of God’s spirit reshaping their lives.

I pray that we find that blessing today.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Cleaning (God’s) House

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.  John 2: 13-22.

Few paths offer a quicker road to trouble than criticizing someone’s religion or their politics.  Almost certainly, Jesus knew that about us, and travelling down that road got Him killed.  In today’s reading from the Lectionary, Jesus criticized both the religion and the politics of the Judean authorities of that time.

The Temple stood as a monument to something sacred and holy:  it represented the intersection of heaven and earth, the dwelling place of the Living God, and a visible symbol of both national identity and God’s covenant with the Jewish people.  Most people would perceive an attack on the Temple  as an attack on the faith (and the nation) itself.  These events took place as the city of Jerusalem swelled with the Passover crowds.

All four Gospels record this event, one of the few occasions on which Jesus became deeply angry.  In the other three Gospels, Jesus calls the Temple a “den of thieves.”  John places this event near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, as opposed to the synoptic Gospels which place it much later.

Jesus apparently became enraged upon observing the barriers thrown up by the priestly authorities, barriers which stood between God and His people.  For example, because Roman coins were forbidden in the Temple, they had to be exchanged (at a substantial discount) for the currency of the Temple.

The Temple authorities also collaborated with the Roman occupation, and Jesus overturned that table as well.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus  insults the Temple culture, calling it a “marketplace.”  Trading on access to the Holy was then, and still remains, a special kind of blasphemy.  Jesus became enraged when He saw the Sacred being traded like a commodity.  I think we underestimate the Gospel if we see this as a historical criticism of “the Jews” back then.

Our churches still seek to collaborate with political power.  We still fall under the thrall of a purity system that separates the righteous from the sinners, the holy from the impure and the whole from those who are broken.  We might well examine the ways in which we still place obstacles in the paths of those who come looking for God.  We might wonder whether our churches, like the Temple in Jesus’ time, have become comfortable monuments to the status quo.  We might ask whether our houses of worship have become mutual admiration societies rather than instruments of change.  Perhaps we should share the Savior’s sense of outrage when we encounter it.

The Judean authorities asked Jesus to provide them with a sign (seimeion), in other words, to show them the authority by which Jesus issues this prophetic condemnation.  Asked for an explanation, Jesus replies with an enigma.  Jesus responds that upon the destruction of “this temple”, he will raise it up in three days.  As is so often the case in John’s Gospel, Jesus is misunderstood.  (We find the classic example of this in Jesus’ trial as Pilate questions Him.  John 18, 19.)  Jesus speaks of the sanctuary of His body; the Judeans think He’s talking about the architecture.

Ultimately, Jesus will displace the Temple as the intersection of heaven and earth.  As He told the Samaritan woman only two chapters later, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”  John 4:21. Further, Jesus’ death would signal the final sacrifice, rendering the Temple culture obsolete. Jesus thus appropriates the functions of the Temple for Himself.  The life of Christ would come to operate as the new meeting place for those seeking El Shaddai (God Almighty).

Like the Temple culture of Jesus’ time, many of us would still prefer a God we could do business with (see here).  Jesus offers us something radically different:  He offers Himself.  He becomes the locus point (the alpha and the omega) where human history intersects with the Father. He has been raised as the new edifice where we can encounter the holy.

As we come to this new Temple, Jesus doesn’t expect us to bring a dove or to engage in some special ritual.  He asks us to take the whip into our own hands, and chase away everything that separates us from God. He asks us to come and offer ourselves, our whole lives, without reservation. He asks us to take up our cross and follow Him.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

You Have Asked a Hard Thing

Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”

Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.  2 Kings 2: 1-12.

We are nearing the end of the season of Epiphany, a season when we mark the ways God reveals Himself in the world.  This season affords us a wonderful time to remember Elijah and his student Elisha.  As this passage begins, Elijah is nearing the end of his days.  At the Lord’s instruction, he has already placed his mantle (the symbol of his prophetic spirituality) on Elisha.  1 Kings 19: 19.

Elijah must travel to Bethel, and suggests that Elisha remain behind.  Some scholars have suggested that Elijah is testing Elisha’s loyalty.  I think something different is happening here.   Perhaps Elijah wants to spare Elisha the pain of this moment.  Perhaps he wants to spare himself the heartbreak of that last goodbye.  It’s no secret that Elijah’s death is near;  prophets along the way, at Bethel  and Jericho remind Elisha of this.  Elisha tells these voices to remain silent.   While Elisha remains committed to accompanying his friend and teacher towards his death, the tremendous sense of loss and mystery defy language.  Words simply fail at moments like these.

While on their journey, Elijah parts the river Jordan, revealing himself as the second Moses.  The progress of their journey–from Gilgal to Jericho to the Jordan–reminds us of the people’s journey as they enter into the promised land.

In the central passage of the story, Elijah asks what he can do for his student, his friend, before he dies.  Elisha asks for a “double share” of his spirit.  Under Deuteronomic law, the eldest son would receive a double portion of his father’s estate.  (Deut. 21:15-17).  Elijah responds that he has asked “a hard thing.”  Elijah knows that this spiritual inheritance is God’s to give, and not his own. More than just a student of the great prophet, it’s clear that Elisha considers himself the spiritual child of Elijah.  This meaning becomes clear when Elijah is taken up into the whirlwind and Elisha cries out, “Father!  Father!”

So, it seems to me that this passage, like today’s Gospel reading on the Transfiguration, centers on the notion of translation.  Jesus’ divinity is translated into a language the disciples can understand.  Elijah, the prophet who stood alone, is translated into a life with the Father.  And Elisha is translated into his new role as the spiritual heir of his teacher.  Coincidentally (and I really don’t believe in coincidences), these things all happen in the context of a journey.  I think Holy Scripture is making a very important point:  we cannot  be transfigured into God’s new creation by remaining in the same place.

I hope to see you on the road.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A Voice in the Darkness

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The LORD called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, `Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.  And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.  1 Sam. 3: 1-10; 19-21.

I have a theory.  My theory is this:  with surprising regularity, things tend to end much as they began.  In many respects, the story of the prophet Samuel seems to validate that notion.

Now, the prophet Samuel began his ministry during the first generation of Israel’s monarchy.  You’ll remember the story that Samuel’s mother (Hannah) was presumed to be barren.  Hannah begged God for a child, promising that if God would give her a son, she would offer the child as a Nazarite (who would not drink wine or strong drink nor shave his head).  Eli, the priest at the holy place of Shilo,  assured Hannah that she would have a son.

Once Hanna weened Samuel, she presented him at Shilo.  In a song remarkably similar to the Magnificat, Hannah sang that God had broken the bows of the mighty, raised the poor up from the dust, and seated the needy with princes.  It’s a striking song, full of political radicalism and foreshadowing Jesus’ promise that the first will be last and the last will be first.

That same notion will run throughout Samuel’s ministry.  Samuel would eventually turn his prophetic vision to Eli the priest.   Eli failed to restrain his sons who abused their power and blasphemed by eating the choice cuts of the sacrificial animals.  1 Sam. 2:12-17.  Similarly, Samuel warned the people of Israel against kings who would abuse their power and take advantage of the vulnerable.  Now, that’s a very old story:  the poor and the powerless suffer under the appetites of the strong.  Samuel would ultimately give voice to God’s conclusion that King Saul’s reign has come to an end. God thus instructed Samuel to anoint David as the King of Israel.

I wonder whether we again live in days “when the word of the Lord is rare.” How do we confront those two twin tremendous mysteries, the silence of God and the voice of God?  Maybe God’s silence arises from our regular failure to ask him for guidance, or our failure to listen when He does speak.  For many of us, like Samuel, we’re not exactly sure when we’re hearing the Lord’s voice, and we certainly know that the news will not always be popular.  As was the case with Samuel, once we’ve identified the voice of the Lord, there’s no guarantee anyone else will be receptive, or even interested.

Despite that, I always smile a bit and find great comfort  when the Lectionary rolls around to this reading. I smile because when I was a child, my parish priest told me that this was a story about what happens to little boys who fall asleep in church.  I find comfort because God calls to Samuel again and again throughout that night.  Regardless of our confusion, God can be remarkably persistent.  He can, in fact, hound us repeatedly while we’re trying to sleep.  God’s word has a remarkable capacity to interrupt and disturb us when we’re trying to do something else. I pray that you’ll listen for that voice, and that I will also.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Dying of Thirst

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

….

The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it. In that day the beautiful young women and the young men shall faint for thirst.  Amos 8: 4-13.

In the Daily Office reading from the Old Testament, we find the prophet Amos acting in the quintessential role of the prophet:  he speaks as a social critic, calling the people of Israel to change their ways.  At first blush, we might wonder what this has to do with us today and how this reading fits into our understanding of Advent.   

Amos speaks out against a terrible social and spiritual problem:  deceit.  Particularly, he is concerned with those who take advantage of the poor.  We don’t have to look very  far to find modern examples suggesting that this is still a problem.  Our newspapers remind us  that there’s nothing archaic about Amos’ concern.  From pools of mortgage-backed securities to deceptive bank  and credit card practices to borrowers who take out loans that they know they cannot repay, we encounter the problem of deceit every day.  But, for the sake of our souls, rather than looking at the headlines, we should search our lives for the ways in which our own deception has separated us from God.  If I have a superpower in this life, it’s my capacity for deception and self-deception. 

Amos believed  that the problem had become so widespread that he compared it to a moral famine and a spiritual drought.  He believed that sharp dealings and deception would result in our inability to hear God in the world.  He wrote about people going from “sea to sea, and from north to east” looking for some whisper of God, and not being able to find it.  That’s the state of the people in first century Palestine:  they knew that their spiritual lives were withering without God’s word, without God’s presence.

Amos summed up our Advent expectation, hoping for a day when justice would “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  Amos 5: 24.  In the Collect for this second we of Advent we pray:  “Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” 

Like Amos, we pray for the end of this famine, for this spiritual drought.  We hope for a day when justice, honor and fairness would roll across the land like an  overflowing torrential river.  That’s our Advent hope, as well.  The people of Israel were spiritually parched, dying for God’s word.  Advent tells us that Word is coming. 

God give you peace and a spirit of wonder,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2011 James R. Dennis