Archive for February 27th, 2010

Why We Kill Prophets

Why We Kill Prophets

Luke 13: 31-35

Daniel J. Ott

Edward R. Murrow spoke these words as he watched the massive funeral progression of Mohandas K. Gandhi in India in 1948.  “The object of this massive tribute died as he had always lived – a private man without wealth, without property, without official title or office. Mahatma Gandhi was not the commander of great armies nor a ruler of vast lands. He could not boast any scientific achievement or artistic gift. Yet men, governments and dignitaries from all over the world have joined hands today to pay homage to this little brown man in the loincloth who led his country to freedom. In the words of General George C. Marshall, the American Secretary of State, “Mahatma Gandhi had become the spokesman for the conscience of all mankind. He was a man who made humility and simple truth more powerful than empires.” And Albert Einstein added, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

Gandhi’s assassin was a man named Nathuram Godse.  He was one of Gandhi’s people; not a British or a British sympathizer, but an Indian and a Hindu.  He had supported Gandhi’s efforts to free India from British imperialism.  He may have even joined in Gandhi’s nonviolent efforts early on.  But he and his co-conspirators had grown angry with Gandhi’s efforts to make peace with Muslims and after three failed attempts, Godse shot Gandhi three times in broad daylight with many witnesses.

Scholars aren’t sure when and how the idea that Jerusalem kills its prophets emerged.  The books of the prophets don’t really tell us about the prophets’ fate.  Jeremiah, at one point, was thrown into a cistern and left for dead.[1] And surely all the prophets took on their vocation with trepidation, knowing that to speak truth to power is risky business.  But the idea that Jerusalem kills the prophets develops in Jewish tradition not in scripture.[2] What’s clear is that Jesus anticipates being killed by his own because of the prophetic word that he is called to enact.  He doesn’t weep for Rome or for Herod, though they will play crucial roles in his death.  He weeps because his own people will kill him; because his own people will reject him.  He weeps because the word of God and the love of God will be rejected by the very people who need it most.

The question that I would like for us to consider this morning is, “Why do we kill the prophets?”  Why do WE close our ears to the word of God and run away from the love of God?  Why do we kill the bearers of God’s truth among us?  Why do we, like Jerusalem, kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to us?

The first thing that can be said in answer to this question is perhaps the most obvious:  prophets make us uncomfortable – very uncomfortable.  Even when they’re on our side prophets make us uncomfortable.  Prophets are idealistic.  They are not adverse to conflict.  They push and when they don’t get a response, they push harder.  Even when we agree with what they are saying, we wish they would say it a bit more softly.

Can you imagine the response of the people to Jesus in our story?  They come telling him that the client-king, Herod has caught wind of him and wants to kill him.  Herod is in with the Romans. He’s very powerful.  He’s already beheaded John the Baptist. But Jesus doesn’t seem to care.  “Go tell that fox, that conniver, that he can come get me if he wants. But I have business to do, I have work to finish, and I won’t be intimidated or bullied.”  I can imagine even those close to Jesus thinking, “Well, that’s all well and good, Jesus, but now we’re playing with the big boys.  Let’s cool off here a minute and think this thing through.”  But Jesus doesn’t seem to have that pragmatic bone in his body.  He presses on to speak truth to power.  Jesus is a whistleblower and whistleblowers make us uncomfortable.

Can you imagine being a friend or coworker of Sherron Watkins as she began to expose the unthinkable corruption and abuse of power at Enron, where high ups literally plotted to steal from the purses of ‘little old ladies in California.’  Surely, her friends pleaded with her to take a minute to think through what she was doing.  Surely, coworkers had to be thinking of their own fate as the truth emerged.

What if Erin Brokovich were your sister or daughter or mother?  Wouldn’t you have urged caution as she bull-headedly exposed the poisonous pollution that Pacific Gas and Electric loosed on Hinkley, CA.  Or, coming a little closer to home, what counsel would you have given Jeffrey Wigand, the former tobacco executive who exposed the industry’s knowledge of smoking’s deleterious effects and the industry’s research and development that sought to increase the addictiveness of their products?

These whistleblowers make us uncomfortable because they boldly do what they take to be right and they do so with little thought to the consequences – the consequence to them – or us.  Why do we kill the prophets?

Another possible answer to the question is that we are not always sure the truth that the prophet brings is in fact the truth.  Jesus tells the Pharisees to tell Herod that he is casting out demons and performing cures.  He is overcoming evil and curing people, not only of their physical ailments, but of their spiritual and social ailments.  The prophets come to us and point out the evil that needs to be overcome.  They tell us that we are sick and need to be cured.  But very often we aren’t even aware that we’re sick.  We haven’t realized that we are participating in evil until the prophet tells us so.

Late in his short life, Martin Luther King widened his message.  Early on he devoted himself exclusively to the abolition of segregation.  But later he began to see that we are caught up in illnesses much larger and more complex than mere white supremacy.  In several of his later speeches he talked about the three interlocking evils of racism, materialism and militarism.

Now we moderate white folks have learned to accept King because none of us considers ourselves racists.  We like the dream speech and have grown comfortable with King over the years.  But when we consider the illnesses of materialism and militarism, we will probably wonder if we want the whole cure that King perscribed.

The problem with all three evils is that they strip people of their personhood.  Racism reduces a person to a skin tone, to an outward appearance, and then ascribes attributes to the person based on assumptions.  It allows people of one ethnicity to assert that people of another ethnicity are less than full persons and therefore do not need to be treated equally.

Materialism reduces us to producers and consumers – homo economicus.  People become cogs in a mass system of buy and sell.  Materialism makes us forget that we are created for faith, hope, and love and makes us think we were made for profit, greed, and pleasure.  We forget that we are persons created in God’s image, created for loving relation with God, and we reduce ourselves to our appetites and our material desires.

Militarism denies personhood, too.  Bodies created in God’s image are blown apart and mutilated.  And we talk about these poor souls as casualties rather than victims.  Innocent bystanders become collatoral damage.  Our enemies, of course, need to be depersonalized too.  So they become krauts or japs, gooks, towel-heads.  Resorting to violence becomes too easy when we forget our personhood and the personhood of others; when we forget that all humanity is created good in God’s image.  A sickness overtakes us and we lose sight of the horror and evil that war really is.

But we like our security and our comfort.  I do.  I like my big house and the ability to buy most anything I desire.  I benefit from living in a rich nation with enormous power and endless reach.  And so why would I want to hear that I’m sick and need to be cured?  Why would I want the prophet to tell me that I participate in evil?  Why do we kill the prophets?

I have one last possible answer to our question.  And it may be the most difficult to accept and the most tragic.  Could it be that God’s truth is not the most difficult for us to receive from the prophet, but God’s love?  Could it be that the prophets bring us a radical message of God’s deep and powerful love, and it is this overwhelming love of God that we reject?

Jesus sang his lament over his people Jerusalem, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…  and you were not willing.”

Nikos Kazantzakis in his beautiful, fictional telling of the life of Saint Francis, pictures Francis similarly conveying a message of love but meeting with rejection.

“Saturday evening… The clouds had scattered, a cool breeze was blowing, the ribbons in the girls’ hair were fluttering, and the young men grew excited and eyed the women with longing and desire.  The first lutes already resounded within the taverns.

Suddenly: laughter, shouts, jeering.  Everyone turned to look.  Francis was visible at the edge of the square, hopping, dancing, his robe tucked up.  “Come one, come all!” he was calling.  “Come, brothers, come to hear the new madness!”

Behind him ran a horde of laughing children chasing him and throwing stones… more appeared from every street, and soon they all joined together and charged Francis.  He, calm and laughing, turned from time to time, held out his arms to the children and shouted, “Whoever throws one stone at me, may he be once blessed by God; whoever throws two stones at me, may he be twice blessed by God; whoever throws three stones at me, may he be thrice blessed by God” – whereupon a continuous stream of stones rained down upon him.

Blood was now flowing from his forehead and chin.  The citizens rushed out from the taverns, guffawing…  He was jumping and dancing rapturously, all covered with blood.

“Hear, brothers,” he sang, “hear the new madness!”…

“Tell us, tell us, tell us!” came from every side, accompanied by a chorus of guffaws.

Francis mounted the steps of the temple, opened his arms to the jeering crowd, and screamed:  “Love, love, love.”[3]

“Peace,” he shouted, “peace be unto your hearts, your houses, your enemies.  Peace be to the world!  The kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

His voice broke continually.  He said the same things over and over again, and whenever he could no longer speak, he began to weep.  “Peace, peace,” he cried, exhorting his listeners to make peace with God, with men, with their hearts.  How?  There was but one way:  by loving.

“Love!  Love!” he shouted, and then began to weep once again.”[4]

Why do we kill the prophets?  Why do we stone the messenger of love?

Does this amazing love make us uncomfortable?  Do we fear that this love will demand the truth and worry about the consequences of that truth?  Are we worried that this love will expose our sicknesses and the evils to which we are addicted?

Or is it because God’s love is just too overwhelming?  Do we take it to be madness?  Perhaps it seems to us too fantastic, too idealistic, too foolish that there is only one way to make peace with God, and with each other and with our own hearts… love.

The prophets come to us with a message of truth and peace and love.  Jesus comes to us with a message of truth and peace and love.  Why do we kill the prophets?

[1] Jeremiah 38

[2] Leslie J. Hoppe, “Luke13:31-35: Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word:  Year C, Volume 2, (Westminster/ John Knox, 2009), pg.  71.

[3] Saint Francis, pp. 110-111

[4] Ibid., p. 180

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