What is a prophet? I think we all probably have certain assumptions and opinions of what a prophet is. If we were to sift through all of the different ways of defining a prophet, I’m certain we’d arrive at this basic conclusion: a prophet is not a normal person. Prophets stand out—and often they’re even marginalized and disliked—because of what they say, how they say it, and even how they live. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most outstanding Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, wrote this about prophets:  

“To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world…. Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria. We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery, but we rarely grow indignant or overly excited. To the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions…. They speak and act as if the sky were about to collapse.”  

Heschel here is commenting specifically on the ancient prophets of Israel—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and others. This same prophetic tradition is the spiritual lineage of Jesus; he embodies the prophetic identity that Heschel so strikingly describes. In today’s Gospel we get a snapshot of Jesus the prophet. This is important for two reasons. It allows us to appreciate more of Jesus’ historical identity. But more importantly, I think, it compels us to contemplate what it means to follow the same prophetic tradition in our day. That’s not an easy task, but there are lessons about the prophetic way that we can derive from today’s Gospel.  

The first has to do with conflict and division. Canada, and indeed our world, is becoming increasingly polarized and factionalized. In Jesus’ day things weren’t too different. Antagonisms were so severe that people weren’t just “canceled”; they were executed. When you consider the life of Jesus, which group of people more than any other stands out as opposed to him? Answer: the Pharisees. But, remarkably, in today’s Gospel it’s a few Pharisees who approach him and warn him that the ruler of Galilee, Herod, has put a hit out on him. Why, of all people, would these Pharisees be concerned for Jesus’ safety? Some scholars have suggested they were being disingenous, but I don’t accept that argument. Pharisees were not all of one mind. Some were relatively cozy with the ruling elites; others not so much. A handful were curious about Jesus, even a bit sympathetic. I think what today’s Gospel shows us is that, sometimes, even the fiercest of adversaries have something in common. These particular Pharisees were on the outs with Herod, as was Jesus, and that’s what drew them together. Perhaps the lesson here is that those with whom we vehemently disagree might surprise us at times with their support, even their kindness. We need to keep ourselves open and receptive to that. Following in the prophetic way of Jesus means that some people won’t like us. But we need to be ready to receive whatever kindness they may offer.  

How does Jesus react to what these Pharisees tell him? This is a second lesson I’d like to mention, and it has to do with living fearlessly. Jesus doesn’t respond to the Pharisees, “Thanks for the warning. I’ll find somewhere to take cover.” No, he tells the Pharisees to inform Herod that he’s staying put. He’s not intimidated, perhaps because he knows that Herod doesn’t have the resolve to hunt him down and kill him. Even if Herod were serious, Jesus still isn’t deterred. Bringing healing and wholeness to the downtrodden while calling out those who perpetuate oppression—this is what has come to define Jesus’ public life, and no one—not even a puppet vassal ruler like Herod—will scare him off. I’m sure each of us, if we’re really honest, could share stories of when fear overtook us and we chose not to speak up and confront injustice. I know I’ve had more than a few experiences like that. Today’s Gospel is a reminder that we follow the way of one who not only spoke up; he did so in the face of death threats. But that fearlessness can become our fearlessness, for the same Spirit that empowered Jesus also empowers us.  

There’s a third lesson from today’s Gospel: the prophetic life involves lament. What exactly does Jesus lament? He laments Jerusalem, the place where prophets (like him) are killed, where the Temple—the epicenter of Israel’s religious life—is overrun with corruption and profit from sales of animals for sacrifices. Jesus longs for a new Jerusalem, but it doesn’t seem to be coming. What do we lament? I think many Anglicans, myself included, are lamenting the state of our church across Canada and around the world. It’s a statistical fact that the Anglican Church of Canada has been experiencing a steady decline of numbers for the last 60 years. Unless we change the way church is done—and that includes interrogating the theology we have inherited—this downward trend will only continue. What else do we lament? I think many of us lament the fracturing of our society. When I was finishing high school, debates about acid rain policy and the Meech Lake Accord were all the rage. But those days seem tame compared to the present moment.  

Where does lament lead us? Not to despair. Yes, lament is an acknowledgment that things are not as they should be—indeed, are far off from where they should be. But lament is also a summons to act. In his own lament, Jesus concludes by saying that he will be going to Jerusalem, to put his body on the line and confront the injustice that has taken over the city. Following the prophetic way of Jesus means that we, too, are being led into the very heart of what we lament, to embody in word and action an alternative way. What that looks like is different for each of us. But it does mean that we must speak out, offer a hand, share our resources, and embrace the disciplines of prayer and meditation.  

Let me conclude with a final point. Following the prophetic way of Jesus is not about “rising to the occasion.” A U.S. Navy SEAL once said, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.” That’s certainly true of the prophetic way of Jesus. It requires training—a lifetime of it. That’s what this parish church exits for. This is a place where we come and learn together about the prophetic way of Jesus; we’re in training to embody it, together, so that we can act wherever we find ourselves in the world. Know this: the mystery of God’s Spirit is moving among us and within us, sometimes slowly, inspiring and empowering us to be open and receptive, fearless, and acting with urgency, “as if the sky were about to collapse.”