In daily Mass, we have begun reading from the prophet Amos. Amos was perhaps among the sternest of the prophets of old. But if you’ve ever met a real prophet, you know that being in the presence of one can be very disturbing. Prophets love God’s people, but they love them too much to withhold the truth.
Prophets were famous for goring everyone’s ox. No one left the presence of a prophet untouched. Prophets didn’t choose sides; they didn’t excoriate only popular targets like the rich and powerful. They were on God’s side and realized that the poor had sins as well, and that those sins often contributed to the very injustices they faced.
So troubling were the prophets of old (including Jesus) that most of them were persecuted, jailed, stoned, exiled, and/or killed. Most of the Biblical prophets were beyond controversial; they were way over the top. Prophets denounced sin and injustice in the strongest language, announcing doom to a nation that refused to repent. Because of this, many Israelites considered them unpatriotic, even downright dangerous. They justified throwing them into prison for their lack of patriotism and for the way their words questioned and upset the status quo and the judgments of those who held power.
To many, the prophets were dangerous men who had to be stopped.
Jesus, though essentially our savior, also adopted the role of a prophet. Listen to the words He directed to the people of His day in response to their rejection of His prophetic message. Jesus likens their behavior to that of their forebears, who rejected the prophets.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.” Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now fill up what your ancestors measured out. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you avoid being sentenced to Hell? (Matt 23:29ff)
Many of us like to think that, had we lived in Jesus’ time, we would surely have been on His side. But prophets can be hard to endure, and Jesus had “difficult” things to say to everyone. For example, the Sermon on the Mount and the parables warning of judgment and exclusion from the kingdom were directed to ordinary people.
Most of us struggle with the truth to some extent, especially those of us who prefer a more gentle discourse with large doses of honey and very little vinegar. We would probably wince as we walked along with Jesus. Jesus was very disconcerting. He spoke more bluntly than we are usually comfortable with. If we read the words of the prophets and Jesus and consider them honestly, we will come away with much to repent of.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Consider the video clip below of a modern prophet named Vernon Johns. In the early 1950s he was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The black congregation that hired him was a rather sleepy one; in the face of rather severe racial discrimination, they preferred to remain silent and therefore safe. Johns tried to awaken them from their sleep, but to no avail. They were too afraid (at that point) to take a prophetic stand. Eventually, Vernon Johns was arrested as a troublemaker and subsequently fired by the Board of Deacons.
But Johns had laid a foundation for the next pastor of Dexter Baptist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Within a few years, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman, and the bus boycott was on. The rest is history.
This clip is of Vernon Johns’ final sermon, in which (in finest prophetic tradition) he denounces racism. Note that no one escapes his denunciations, even his own congregation. Watch this clip and behold what it must have been like to be with the prophets of old, or even with Jesus.
Behold the prophet; no one escapes! At the end of the clip, Johns’ daughter, who had stood against her Father’s zeal, sings “Go Down Moses.” The choir director, who had also opposed him, likewise stands up to sing. The seed has been planted even as the prophet is led away by the police.
Disclaimer: Vernon Johns’ speech should be understood in its particular historical context. In recent years we have seen in this country a sometimes riotous response to perceived abuses of power by the police. Note that in his speech Johns does not call for rioting. Rather he calls for proper and vigorous protest, which at that time was muted by fear and social convention. In posting this video, I intend no direct commentary on the current problems, which are often complex and admit of differing prudential judgments and responses. But as a video like this shows, there is a long history that is easily awakened. We do well, at the very least, to be aware of it.