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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 31: Prophesy is About the Present

 For they are a rebellious people, faithless children, children who will not hear the instruction of the Lord; who say to the seers, “Do not see”; and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.” Isaiah 30:9-12

My understanding of prophesy was of something future-oriented, as in predicting the future. My scant readings of biblical prophecy did nothing to correct my ignorance. Last fall, I heard Sister Audrey Doetzel explain that prophesy is “courageously telling the present,” and her insights opened my eyes to the vital purpose and tenuous place of prophets throughout history. In biblical times, and still today, prophets lived in a space described by Fr. Richard Rohr as the “edge of the inside.” They live as part of the current culture, but they remain on the fringes of society. From there, they observe and participate in the here and now, while retaining a distance that allows for their unique and broader perspective.

The prophets of the Old Testament were often servants of rulers whose job it was to read the signs of the times. When their reading proved incorrect or unpopular, they sometimes were put to death. Some of those prophesies were future-oriented, as in “If you continue on this path, this (bad thing) will happen.” A prophesy, however, is a reading of the present situation, even when it points to a future calamity. Common to prophets then and now, however, is that prophets speak truth to power. Prophets almost exclusively speak on behalf of the disadvantaged to the advantaged.

Artists, poets, authors, and songwriters are often the prophets of the day, holding up a mirror to society, saying, “Look at what you have become.” The message of the prophets throughout time has not always been welcomed or received kindly. Jesus, himself, testified that a prophet has no honor in the prophet’s own country (John 4:44).

The 1960’s saw an explosion of contemporary prophets, including Bob Dylan:

Come gather ’round people wherever you roam, And admit that the waters around you have grown;
Accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone, If your time to you is worth savin’,
Then you better start swimmin’, or you’ll sink like a stone, For the times, they are a-changin’.

And Paul Simon:

And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made;
And the sign flashed out its warning, in the words that it was forming,
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls,” And whispered in the sounds of silence.

Those railing against the status quo welcomed these and other artists in the 60’s, but they were threats to the established order. They gave a voice to those who felt they had none. Unsettled times bring prophets to the forefront where their perspective is needed, if not always applauded. Sister Audrey, quoting Thomas Moore, said prophesy is “an ethical motivation that leads to criticism of, or at least an alternative to, a highly narcissistic and materialistic culture (emphasis added).” She describes the 21st century prophets’ call as one to make “the invisible God audible and visible.” I agree wholeheartedly, and there can be no more timely need than now for ethical prophesies of that sort. The questions are: “Who will speak truth to power today?” and, once heard, “Who will act upon it?”

It is important to warn of false prophets, however. Jesus issued his warning in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” In assessing would-be prophets, it is wise to ask, “What do they hunger for?” My sense is that today’s political partisans, on both sides, are closer to the powerful, ravenous wolf than to the sheep. If a person or group hungers for power or for the degradation or destruction of others, it cannot be the all-inclusive God they are making audible.

Prophesy is about the present. How did I miss that?

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