Category Archives: prophets

Elijah and Ahab

This week the first lectionary readings are from the Elijah cycle in the First Book of Kings. Elijah is one of those prophets that I love but who has a few character flaws – most notably his killing of the 450 prophets of Baal.

What surprised me today is that the lectionary skips over three very important stories.

The first is a follow up to Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath in Tuesday’s reading. The widow’s little boy dies and Elijah raises him to life (1 Kings 17:17-24).

The second is the end of the drought and his encounter with Obadiah, the master of the place who had hid 100 prophets when Queen Jezebel (the original one) was slaughtering all the prophets of the LORD.

But the scene that strikes me most is the meeting of Elijah and Ahab (1 Kings 18: 16-21).

When Ahab saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is it you, you disturber of Israel?” He answered, “It is not I who disturb Israel, but you and your father’s house, by forsaking the commands of the LORD and you by following the Baals.

Dan Berrigan in The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power puts it even more boldly:

The king enters. His welcome is decidedly frigid: “So it’s you, the scourge of Israel!”
Not at all set back, the prophet retorts, “Not I; you are the scourge of Israel!” And he proceeds to upbraid the king unmercifully for his defection to Baal, and to propose a test, a public showdown between himself and the entire coterie of practicing Baalian priestdom.
Bracing, we say – and bravo! At long last we encounter a spirit undaunted daunted by royal persiflage, threats, blandishments.

As I read about the letter of Archbishop Viganò to Donald Trump and the archbishop’s unkind, probably calumnious words about Archbishop Wilton Gregory, and I wonder if we are in the midst of a “Baalian priestdom” who worship the false gods of power, violence, and domination and pretend to provide divine blessings on the US president.

Who is the real prophet – Archbishop Wilton Gregory or the retired archbishop who is spouting conspiracy theories and defending Trump?

Who is more like Elijah? Who is more like the court prophets?

I have my opinions. I may be wrong, but I don’t see vitriol or calumny as a sign of a follower of Jesus.


Today I am breaking my usual reticence to speak about specific persons and politics, but recent events have caused me a bit of perturbation.

A psalm for Father Dan Berrigan

Today Fr. Dan Berrigan’s body will be laid to rest.

To celebrate this I read the psalms for Morning Prayer of the Office for the Dead. The final psalm, 146, seems particularly fitting for this priest, prophet, poet, prisoner.

“I will make music to God while I live.” (verse 2)

His poetry and his writings have been music to my ears, opening them more fully to God.

“Put no trust in princes…” (verse 3)

Fr. Dan did not trust princes, especially those who are armed to the teeth with weapons of death. Fr. Dan’s life spoke of a deeper trust – in a God of Life.

“It is he who keeps faith for ever,
who is just to those who are oppressed.
It is he who gives bread to the hungry…” (verses 6-7)

I am not sure whether the psalmist is speaking of the Lord or of those who put their hope in the Lord. Does it matter? We are to be holy as the Lord is holy, to be just as the Lord is just, to share our bread as the Lord has shared bread with us.

“…the Lord sets prisoners free…” (verse 7)

Even more, we are called to set prisoners free. The Resurrection of Christ icon has Jesus setting free Adam and Eve and all the holy ones who went before Him. He breaks the gates of Hell.

“the Lord gives sight to the blind,
raises up those who are bowed down;
the Lord protects the stranger
and upholds the widow and orphan.” (verses 8-9)

Fr. Dan opened the eyes of many of us so that we can not deny that we are called to raise up those bowed down by violence and poverty, we are called to protect the stranger and migrant in our midst, we are called to uphold the least of all.

“It is the Lord who loves the just
but thwarts the path of the wicked.” (verses 8-9)

Fr. Dan loved justice and his acts of holy disobedience were often attempts to thwart the path of the the wicked.

“The Lord will reign forever….” (verse 10)

My guess is that this is what Fr. Dan prayed for.

May the Reign of God, a reign of love, justice, peace, come.

I think we’ve seen glimpses of this Reign in the life of Father Dan.

DSC06323


The translation of the psalm is adapted from the Grail translation.

 

Prophets of gloom

DSC01476I remember June 3, 1963, when the school bells tolled for the death of good Pope John.

Now Pope St. John XXIII is remembered as the pope who opened the windows of the Church, who opened the Church to go out into the world with the message of the Good News, who opened the Second Vatican Council, to the consternation of many in the Curia.

In his address to the bishops assembled at the council in October 1962, Pope John said

In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen – much to our regret – to voices of person who, though burning with religious zeal, are not much endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin…. We feel we must disagree with these prophets of gloom. In the present order of things, divine providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by human effort and even beyond human expectation, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s highest and inscrutable design; and everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.

There are too many prophets of gloom these days. Too many see only the shortcomings of the world and of the Church. Too many want a Church aloof from the world.

I hear all too many people hear speak of the Church as being threatened by the world. I read of all too many in the US and beyond who fear the openness of Pope Francis.

Too many see only the evil, the dangers, the persecution.

I am not blind to the evil in the world. I read of the persecution of Christians in some lands – and I read of the exaggerated fears of Christians in the US. I see the violence of poverty and repression – and I read of those “Christians” who would deny the needs of the poor. I read of the billions spent by the US for its own military and for the militaries of many countries that only reinforce injustice – Honduras and Israel among them.

But I see the little signs of God’s Reign all around us. I see the strong words of Pope Francis against the evils of poverty and the devastation of nature. I see the people in many places standing up against violence and oppression.

I am beginning to trust in the Providence of God – but not as an excuse for evil and suffering. The Providence of God moves me to respond with love and hope, with the message that death and suffering do not have the final word, with the challenge that Pope John XXIII gave us from his deathbed:

 The moment has arrived when we must recognize the signs of the times, seize the opportunity, and look far ahead.

We must be people of vision, prophets of hope, challenging the evil, the injustice, and  the violence, with lives that show the world that something new is possible. We are not constrained by the past. We can participate in the New World that God is offering us.

—————-

The quotations from Pope John XXIII are taken from Robert Ellsberg’s  All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, a book I highly recommend. (Now in Kindle!)

The breath of God

Elijah is one of my favorite prophets.

This prophet who ended up killing 450 prophets might seem an unlikely favorite of a pacifist.

But Elijah is a prophet who dared to stand up to rulers and false prophets. Elijah shows God’s preference for the poor when he condemns Ahab’s avarice that had led the king to take Naboth’s vineyard by means of false witnesses and the death of Naboth, engineered by the queen Jezebel.

Elijah, fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:6)

Elijah, fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:6)

But Elijah is also a prophet who trusted in God. After he had proclaimed the drought on the land, he went and lived by the stream Cherith, where he was fed daily by a raven.

When the stream dried up, he went to Zarephath where he elicited the help of a poor widow. When her son died, he brought him back to life by what sounds like artificial respiration, so that the breath returned to the child.

Elijah also was a man who had his moments of desperation. He fled from Queen Jezebel into the desert and laid down to die. But God called him to walk to Mount Horeb. When God asks him what’s up, Elijah responds with a whiny response: “No one is left but me…”

But God reveals God’s very self to Elijah on the mountain.

This passage, 1 Kings 19: 9-13, which is the first reading today, is one of my favorite passages in scripture.

Mount Horeb is Mount Sinai where God was revealed to Moses and the people of Israel in fire, earthquakes, lightning – a grand display equal to Cecil DeMille’s epic movie.

Elijah also had his experience with fire, when he called down God’s fire on the offering on Mount Carmel. The story reveals a bit of Elijah’s brazen arrogance and sarcastic wit when, after insulting the prophets of Baal asking them if their god was taking a nap or out visiting,  he drenches his sacrifice with twelve jars of water.

God was, for Elijah, often the God of power and might, of rock-breaking winds, lightning, and powerful movements of the earth – a vindictive god.

But Elijah is called to experience God in another way – in a gentle breeze, a soft murmuring, a breath.

God often comes to us in ways he do not expect – or do not want.

Elijah probably wanted a god who would vindicate him before the king. He was used to a God who did things in big ways – whether on Mount Sinai or Mount Carmel.

But God came to Elijah in a breath, something small and assuming, something which could easily be missed.

God often calls us in those small quiet ways.

But God prepares us for these encounters, as God prepared Elijah.

Recall that though Elijah is often associated with the death of prophets, he also brought the son of the widow back to life, appealing to God to “let the child’s breath return to him.”

Let us listen to the breath of God today and also nourish the breath of God in the children of widows and the poor.

 

Defaming the motherland

This man must die,
for he has spoken against the City…
Jeremiah 26: 11

 Today’s readings present us with the challenge the prophets give to all those in power.

Jeremiah has attacked the complacency and idolatry of the religious leaders, who trust in their power and fail to turn the hearts of the people to the Lord.

John the Baptist has attacked the power and lechery of Herod. The Gospels connect John’s death with his illicit union with his brother’s wife; Flavius Josephus suggested that Herod feared that John’s preaching would provoke a rebellion.

The prophets threaten the status quo; they threaten the idolatry of the powers that be. As Fr. Dan Berrigan, S.J., puts it, they “defame the motherland.”

But how often do we Christians put our trust in the nation state or in our status as “good Christians” or “good Americans”? These are all too easy temptations?

Where does our real allegiance lie?

In whom do we really trust?

And, are we really willing to challenge the Powers that be?

 

 

going after strange gods

Jeremiah is brutal in today’s lectionary reading (7: 1-11). He refuses to let the people rely on their public worship, their beautiful temple.

Instead he lays out their wrong doing and calls them to amend their ways:

 Do not abuse the stranger, orphan, or widow,
or shed innocent blood in this place,
or follow strange gods…
But you trust in deceptive and useless words.
You steal, kill, take the wife of your neighbor;
you swear falsely and follow strange gods…

Dan Berrigan notes that this is not a mere listing of sins:

 Each catalogue of crimes ends, in fact, with the name of the greatest of crime: idolatry.
…idolatry permeates every misdeed. There are unjust toward one another, taking base advantage of widows and orphans, even killing the innocent… Such behavior already implies… “worshipping false gods.”

What might Jeremiah say today?

I think that he would list the rejection of the migrant, especially the children, as well as the killing of civilians in Gaza, as well as – to a lesser extent – in Israel. He would look at the lack of compassion toward the poor and rail against this abuse.

But he would also ask us to look at the strange gods that lead us to such actions.

What are these strange gods?

For this we need a national examination of conscience, not just asking what evil we have done but what gods we worship.

I propose we look at a few possible false gods – wealth, power, nationalism, consumerism. All of these, I believe, flow from a lack of trust in a God who calls us to mercy and compassion. It flows from a fear that we might have to lay these gods aside, these gods that promise an easy life – in order to live a good life.

A good life is a life serving the God of compassion, the Father of orphans, widows, and the stranger.

This is not a God who kills strangers, who tells the migrant to go home, who erects walls and borders.

The Lord is a God who finds ways to welcome others – even ourselves – so that we may live as people of mercy.

 

The challenge of Jeremiah

“I am too young.”
Jeremiah 1: 6

 Today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah (1: 1, 4-10) has often been used to encourage young people to participate in the church, to assume leadership roles, to take public prophetic stands. “Your age doesn’t matter, “ we might say.

But this morning, as I read Daniel Berrigan’s commentary on this passage, in Jeremiah: The World, the Wound of God,” I began to wonder whether we have missed something.

God is asking Jeremiah to be a prophet, which will mean announcing destruction and the overthrow of the city, as well as a call to build and to plant. More than enough to make any one hesitate.

His call, though, is not just something God just thought of at the last moment. As Dan Berrigan writes:

What a predicament; what a harsh announcement! It falls, a bolt from the blue:
“Before I formed you,… before you were born,… I appointed you.”

Isn’t that too much for anyone?

As Berrigan remarks,

 Jeremiah can only protest: “I don’t know how to speak; I am too young.” Does he protest too much, as some have claimed? No matter his age, the sense goes deeper. Who, at any stage of life, issued such a summons, would not feel callow, inept, a stutterer?

Do I take God’s call too blithely? Do I recognize the seriousness of being a prophet? – Aren’t we all called to be prophets, in some way? Do I underestimate the challenge?

Jeremiah was realistic. He knew his words would not be heeded. But he spoke forth, reassured by God.

As Berrigan continues:

    The word in all its integrity, be it understood, is one thing — its reception quite another. So must the speaker of the word stand and withstand, more often than not, alone, a guardian, a lonely sentinel of the truth. Regardless of outcome.
Such understanding, entering the soul’s fiber and weaving it anew, gives rise to marvelous images of strength. Jeremiah “Will be like a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall.” Which is to say: as possessor of the truth, possessed by the truth, your strength surpasses that of all the others—“kings, priests, and the people.” A bit much —

A bit much – but maybe our calling.

 

 

 

 

Micah’s challenge

Act justly,
love tenderly,
walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6: 8

It’s all about how we act, how we love, and how we walk.

Do we act with justice, with concern for the justice of God – which means a right relation with God and with others?

The world is filled with injustice – poverty, war, violence, oppression.

Do we love with tenderness – not because we are commanded to love, but because the mercy of God’s love has invaded our hearts?

The world is filled with harshness – the harsh words, the arms and missiles, racism, and hatred for the migrant and the poor.

Do we walk humbly with God – not proudly as if God was one our side, but humbly because we need to let God’s love, mercy and justice lead us?

But the world is also filled with God’s presence – when we walk beside the poor and migrant, when we take up the cause of the oppressed, when we speak up against violence and war.

God is there.

Let us walk his way.

—-

The passage from Micah is based on the Jerusalem Bible translation.

A prophet among us

Today is Jesuit Father Dan Berrigan’s 93rd birthday.

Fr. Dan is a poet, a protestor, a prophet, pacifist, a jail bird and fugitive from (in)justice.

I met him several times and found him a humble man, with strong opinions, but a willingness to listen.

DSC01859Once in the late 1970s I attended a retreat he led at Kirkridge. He autographed a copy of his book on the psalms, Uncommon Prayer, with the note “to the happy philosopher – from Dan”.

He was “exiled” in the 1960s by his Jesuit superiors at the request of a bishop and sent to Latin America – not the place to send a budding revolutionary.

He spent time in jail for demonstrations during the Viet Nam as well for his involvement with burning of draft records (the Catonsville 9) and the pounding on nuclear warhead nose cones (the Plowshares 8).

He has written radical “commentaries” on books of the bible which, though informed by scholarship, make the scriptures very relevant to the struggles of our times.

But I never noticed any self-righteousness in his speaking or in his books, even though they are very critical. His book on Lamentations, subtitled From New York to Kabul and Beyond, is devastating in its approach.

Maybe Fr. Dan is not self-righteous because he’s a poet. Or maybe it’s because he’s a prophet who tries to be faithful to God – and risks his life and his reputation in defense of life.

In a collection entitled Testimony: The Word Made Flesh, there’s an essay “The Strange Case of the Man Who Could Not Please Anyone.” It concludes with this paragraph:

The banning of bombs, and the cherishing of the unborn, as of all living beings — this is the urgent moral business of ourselves. All of us, woven into, weaving anew the wondrous web of life. Graced with the burden and glory of the human vocation. We are stewards of life, never hucksters of death.

May we, like Fr. Dan, be stewards and defenders of life – and not hucksters of death of any sort.

Really prophets

Let us set a trap for the just one,
for he annoys us
and opposes our way of life.
Wisdom 2: 12

 As we approach Holy Week, the lectionary speaks with urgency about the imminent passion and death of Jesus.

The reading from Wisdom – about the just in general – is here applied in a special way to Jesus, but its significance goes beyond that.

The truly just one is Jesus, but many just persons have experienced persecution and death as he has.

But not all who are persecuted are prophets. Some are persecuted because their style of criticism is too harsh, too accusatory, too alienating.

Today is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Reading his sermons and talks and remembering what he said, I believe that his message was what caused his death.

He was severely critical of US society and didn’t confine it to the problems of segregation and racism. When he was killed in Memphis he was beginning to work on the Poor People’s Campaign which sought to give a voice to those who were impoverished in a rich nation. A year before he was killed he gave his searing sermon “Beyond Vietnam,” in which he not only condemned the Vietnam war but also the roots of that war in the racism, materialism, and militarism he saw in the US society.

His message made him enemies. But he spoke it in light of a call to become the Beloved Community. He spoke it because he had a dream of solidarity.

Are we willing to speak uncomfortable truths, but in a loving way? Or do we criticize injustice in a way that makes us appear justified, accusing others?

Do we fail to see the roots of war and injustice on our own hearts?

Or, do we take the prophetic message to heart, changing our way of life, and inviting others to join us in this search for the Reign of God?