Prophetic living without prophets or prophecies—A meditation for the coming New Year (2019)

Trough sarcophagus in Rome showing Jesus being baptised by John
The picture at the head of this blog is of the relief found on the right front of a trough sarcophagus in the left side-aisle of Sancta Maria Antigua Church inside the Roman Forum, Rome, Italy. Dated between 250 and 275. We see, on the left, a scene depicting Jonah, then “Philosophy” with an opened scroll, “Piety” with upraised arms, and “Humanity” with a shouldered ram and, on the right, we see a bearded John the Baptist, clad in pallium without tunic (like a Cynic philosopher), with his right hand on the head of a smaller, nude Jesus to left. The dove descends almost vertically above Jesus’ head. John stands on land, and Jesus is to his ankles in water.

READINGS: Two sayings of Jesus and an accompanying commentary by John Dominic Crossan in his “The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images” (Castle Books, 1998) 

What did you go to the desert to find?
    A reed that bends with the winds that blow?
What did you go to the desert to find?
    A man who wears the clothes of kings?
What did you go to the desert to find?
    A prophet?
For sure, but also more, far more than just a prophet

Into the Desert (see, e.g., Matthew 11:7-10). John the Baptist was one of several populist and activist prophets who, in that first-century occupied Jewish homeland, attempted to reenact the Exodus as archetypal deliverance from foreign oppression. Most of them led large crowds from the desert across the Jordan hoping that God would intervene decisively against the Romans, so that they could once again possess their Promised Land as inaugurally of old under Moses and Joshua. They were normally unarmed, since they expected a cataclysmic intervention by God to effect what human weapons could not achieve. John the Baptist shared that ideology but not that strategy. Instead, he sent individuals, rather than led crowds, from the eastern desert and through the Jordan, and thereby planted ticking time bombs of apocalyptic expectation all over the Jewish homeland. Jesus began his public career as a follower of the Baptist and must have therefore expected the imminent advent of the avenging God preached by John. But instead of God came Herod Antipas, and John was executed without any divine intervention. This saying is Jesus’ defense of John and must have been uttered very close to that tragedy. Which do you want, it asks: Antipas or John? The pliant kingling dressed in royal robes or the desert prophet of the apocalyptic God?

In all the past
    no one in human history
        is greater than John the Baptist
In all the future
    any one in the Kingdom of God
        is greater than John the Baptist 

Greater than John (see, e.g., Matthew 11:11). This saying gracefully but definitely contradicts the preceding one. Sometime after John’s execution, and possibly even because of it, Jesus lost faith in God as the imminent apocalyptic One and came to believe, instead, in God as the immanent sapiential One. This God is known not through a future cosmic cataclysm but through a present lifestyle here, now, and immediately. His preferred term is the Kingdom of God, that is, the manifestation of God’s presence through both individual and social, religious and political, styles of life appropriate to a world under divine rather than human control. What was needed, Jesus now claimed, was not a revelation (in Greek: apocalypsis) about the future but a wisdom (in Latin: sapientia) about the present.


Prophetic living without prophets or prophecies
A meditation for the coming New Year

There will be few of us here today who are able to look into the coming year without feeling huge concern, even fear, in particular about climate change and Brexit. It is certainly the case with me and I confess to finding myself, on occasions, tempted to cast around the various newspapers and journals in order to find someone whom I can trust is able to tell me what is certainly going to happen in the coming year.

Hermes talks to Jason
This desire, always present but particularly so at the moment, reminds me that the desire for prophets is a very ancient human one indeed. It’s worth remembering that our religion and politics (which constantly overlap) have often thrived and painfully fallen thanks to following words uttered by this or that prophet. In the days following Christmas as I was beginning to muse on this subject, Susanna’s grandson and I re-watched bits of Harry Harryhausen’s wonderful stop-motion film from 1963, “Jason and the Argonauts”. You may remember that the story unfolds in the way it does thanks to King Pelias’ (mis)interpretation of the prophecy given to him by the god Zeus via a prophet priest who, it turns out, is really Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Pelias forgets that Hermes — from whose name we get the word “hermeneutics”, i.e. the art of interpretation — always passes on his prophetic messages in ways that are never clear and straight-forward and which always require subtle, reflective, open interpretation and re-interpretation in the light of events and our encounter with others. In other words even Hermes (who, the myths, tell us speaks directly with the gods) is never capable of telling us what is actually going to happen and this means that his prophecies are not really prophecies at all — at least not in the common understanding of the word — instead they are goads to ongoing, creative, open reflection and interpretation. You’d have thought we would have learnt this lesson by now but no, for time and time again kings, emperors, priests, politicians, and even ordinary folk like us, continue to fall prey to the temptation to believe that there are some people who can prophesy clearly and flawlessly.  

Given that on Christmas Day I said from this lectern that when the Gospels are stripped as best they can be of their unhistorical and supernatural elements, Jesus offers us a humanistic teaching which remains utterly relevant today, it seems appropriate to seek to draw a lesson about prophets and prophecies from the earliest years of Jesus’ adult ministry. I do this because, as I also noted on Christmas Day, our first minister here, J. Cyril Flower, wrote in 1920 that when we “catch a glimpse of the real man of Galilee, and give ear to [his] teaching” then “like the seed growing in secret” it remains capable of germinating in our hearts and able to “revolutionize our social life, our industrial order and our religion” (p. 9).

Taking him seriously I'd like to try to plant a revolutionary, germinating seed in your — and indeed my — heart, one that will, I hope, begin to show some green shoots during the coming year . . .

Immediately before Jesus began his own ministry he, too, as we heard in our readings, was enamoured of a prophet, the famous John the Baptist. As John Dominic Crossan observes — in an echo of so much of the prophetic, national populist rhetoric we are hearing at the moment — John the Baptist was amongst those who were prophesying to his hearers an “archetypal deliverance from foreign oppression.” John the Baptist believed he knew what was going to happen and he expressed his belief in such a confident fashion that many people who were hungry to know what was going to happen — including Jesus — were quite prepared to believe and act upon John’s prophecy that their oppressed land would, thanks to the direct, apocalyptic intervention of God, suddenly become their Promised Land. It didn’t matter how much chaos was created because it would all be a sign that their avenging God — we might say vengeful “ideal” or “fantasy” — was at work. But, as we know, what came was not the Promised Land but the rule of Herod Antipas who, in turn, executed John the Baptist and, it seems, later played a key role in the execution of Jesus.

The discovery that one has been following a prophet whose prophecies have been utterly discredited is always traumatic event but, oddly, we know it cuts in at least two very different ways.

Some people, instead of beginning critically to question the truth of basic idea about the efficacy of prophets and their prophecies, astonishingly simply go on believing in the same prophet or to go on and seek out some new (better) one.

However, other people, do begin critically to question ideas about prophets and prophecies but this latter group can then itself be subdivided. There are those who decide that everything prophetic is untrustworthy and should be avoided but this approach, alas, all too easily leads to people beginning passively to acquiesce to the current status quo, saying to themselves and others that “TINA - There Is No Alternative”. But, as I pointed out at the beginning of Advent, there are others, such as Jesus, who have been able to say, “TATIANA — That, Astonishingly, There Is AN Alternative. It is to see that there is a way of being prophetic but without any further need for either prophets or prophecies about an always unpredictable future.

As we heard in our reading, following his disappointment with John the Baptist, Jesus says:

In all the past
       no one in human history
            is greater than John the Baptist.
In all the future
       any one in the Kingdom of God
             is greater than John the Baptist.
It is a saying which clearly suggests that in the kingdom Jesus thought we would all be living in a prophetic fashion that dissolved the need for future-orientated prophets like John the Baptist. This occurs because God, and the Kingdom of God, is now not for Jesus some future, imminent being and state of affairs that you need a prophet to see and prophesy about but, instead, something immanent, known “through a present lifestyle, here, now, and immediately.”

As Crossan realises, Jesus comes to feel that

What was needed . . . was not a revelation (in Greek apocalypsis) about the future but a wisdom (in Greek sapientia) about the present.

To use more modern language to describe the matter Jesus seems to have seen that one could entirely dispense with prophets and prophesies and yet still be prophetic if one lived in a way that prefigured the kingdom of God in the communities in which we actually find ourselves. As Justin Meggitt notes in a chapter recently published by the University of Stockholm called “Was the historical Jesus an anarchist? Anachronism, anarchism and the historical Jesus” (pp. 124-197), Jesus seems to have realised the importance of ensuring that the means one employs in living now must be consistent with the desired ends, that is “the outcomes are prefigured by the methods”.

But to be prophetic without prophets and prophecies like this one must also take care to dispense with the temptation to fall prey to the lure of any form of utopianism, utopias being, of course, another example of the future-orientated prophecies uttered by prophets. Again, as Meggitt notes:

Although utopias can have their uses — they can inspire, encourage, provide a pleasurable escape — they can also be coercive and that is why, on the whole, they have been resisted by anarchists; utopianism enforces others to live in a certain way, and a utopia envisaged as a single, totalising endpoint will necessitate manipulation to fit a predetermined plan. As Marie Louise Berneri demonstrated in her analysis of utopian thought from Plato to Huxley, they are inherently authoritarian. For anarchists, the details of such social order need to be determined by those that that are dominated. Their ethics are:
          Reflexive and self-creative, as they do not assess practices against a universally prescribed end-point, as some utopian theorists have done, but through a process of immanent critique (pp. 148-149).

Lots of people will still resist the idea that this is the kind of thing being advocated by Jesus because, as Meggitt notes, “it is often assumed that the historical Jesus had a clear idea of his intentions and understanding of the implications of the kingdom of God from the outset” (p. 149). But, when one takes care to go back to the textural sources themselves and successfully avoids making the kinds of doctrinal assumptions made by later Christianity, what we discover is a strong sense that Jesus was himself “a figure open to reflection and revision in the light of events and encounter with others” (ibid.).  Think here particularly of his encounter with the Syrophonecian woman.

We sense this most powerfully in Jesus’ parables which, once again to cite Meggitt, “are figurative and affective” and are in “a form that does not compel the hearer to arrive at a narrowly predetermined understanding of what is being conveyed” (p. 150)

Again and again we find the prophetic message in a life lived in the here and now that proclaims with the human Jesus, again and again, TATIANA! — That, Astonishingly, There Is AN Alternative to the present situation.

As we prepare to enter into what seems highly likely to be an exceptionally fraught and difficult period of history, I would strongly argue that we in this community need to stay firmly focussed on the business of creating together, in the here and now, the kind of non-prophet but still prophetic community Jesus envisaged, one which open-endedly prefigures an egalitarian, non-coercive life by practising an open commensality and consciously remaining ever open to reflection and revision in the light of events and the encounter with others. (To be a place where God happens).

What we absolutely must not do is get caught up in trying to compete in any head-on way with all the wannabe future-orientated wild prophets whose conflicting voices are likely only to increase in volume and vehemence in the coming months. 

Again and again — like a still small voice (1 Kings 19:11-12) speaking in the heart of the political and religious winds, earthquakes and fires of our own age — surely in the coming year we must proclaim that what is needed is not a revelation (in Greek apocalypsis) about the future but a wisdom (in Greek sapientia) about the present.