I get uncomfortable whenever I hear progressive Christians talking about being prophetic. In my experience, it usually means little more than making political statements that have more to do with American partisan politics than with the Good News of Jesus Christ. But that’s only one of the ways in which Christians misread the traditions of biblical prophecy.
We tend to see the prophets through the eyes of Handel’s Messiah or the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. On this view, the prophets were mostly about predicting the coming of the Messiah, and their importance for Christians lies in the fact that the appearance of Jesus is both a confirmation of their predictions, and that they offer key insights into who and what Jesus is.
But that’s all a bit of a caricature. The Christian interpretation of the prophets as predicting the coming of Jesus is actually a reading back into earlier texts—looking for, perhaps even inventing connections between Jesus’ biography and ministry and the prophets.
Hebrew prophecy was more complex and more interesting than all that. In today’s reading from Amos, we are presented with a single story that reveals a great deal about how prophets functioned in ancient Israel and Judah, and to the extent that this story is connected to the gospel reading about the execution of John the Baptizer, it also says a great deal to us about what prophets might be in our own day.
Any discussion of Hebrew prophecy rightly begins with Amos, because historically he is the first of what we call the classical prophets—those whose careers and words are preserved in texts that bear their names. That is not to say that there weren’t earlier prophets. The books of Samuel and Kings tell the stories of Nathan, Elijah, and Elisha, but in those cases, we learn much more about what they did than what they said. Prophecy emerged with the monarchy in Israel and the classical prophets, Amos and the others, were often in conflict with the kings of the day.
We see that in this reading which provides almost everything we know of Amos’ background and origin. It’s significant that he comes from the southern kingdom of Judah, that he was called by God to go prophesy in the northern kingdom of Israel. The two had split after the death of King Solomon and were rivals. Amos tells us and Amaziah: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycomore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock…”
The point here is that Amos comes from outside the typical structure of the prophetic office—he isn’t a prophet because his father was one. We know that there was something called “the company of prophets” that groups of them worked together, and often they worked hand in hand with the monarchy, serving essentially as ministers of propaganda or foreign policy advisors (telling the king whether it made sense to make war, especially).
So Amos comes north, as a foreigner to preach his message of doom, destruction, and harsh criticism of the economic inequality, injustice, and oppression that characterized the northern kingdom of the day. In fact the book begins with powerful critiques of all of Israel’s neighbors, the Moabites, the Edomites, even the kingdom of Judah, before honing in on Israel’s sins:
Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
So you can imagine that the king of Israel Jeroboam II didn’t particularly like having Amos around, especially when in addition to all of this criticism, Amos apparently also predicted his death. So the king sent his own prophet out to get rid of Amos. You’ll note that the prophet Amaziah didn’t challenge the content of Amos’ message, didn’t say he was parlaying “fake news” but just told him to go back home and prophesy there.
Amos didn’t go home. He continued to prophesy, and within a few decades after his death, Israel was conquered by Assyria and faded into history. Hebrew Scripture, which was largely written by authors from the southern kingdom, interpreted this fate as a result of Israel’s apostasy; its turning from God and its rebellion against Judah. But the model of the prophet as one who challenged the king, called the people back into covenant with God, reminded them of their obligations under Torah, and cried out against injustice, oppression, and inequality would persist.
John the Baptizer stood in the line of the Hebrew prophets. Both in his message and in his lifestyle, he fit into the role that the earlier prophets had played. And he shared their fate. The story in Mark of his execution is quite striking, not just because of its length. It’s one of the longest stories in the entire gospel, the only one in which Jesus himself does not appear. And it is told in the form of a flashback. Herod is remembering what he did to John the Baptizer after he receives word of Jesus’ mighty acts. Herod comes off as a weak tyrant, subject to his own physical desires and to the whims of the woman he married. In fact, it seems he rather liked John the Baptizer, liked listening to him and when he was forced by his own rash vow and the need to save face in front of an audience of courtiers, regretted John’s execution.
The story foreshadows Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Herod and Pilate have similar reactions; both are manipulated by other forces and people. The very last verse is almost identical to Mark’s description of Jesus’ burial. Mark is making a connection between Jesus and John, a connection he has made before. In Mark, Jesus begins his public ministry only after John’s arrest. Now, we are told of John’s execution at a significant point in the gospel. We have seen Jesus working miracles, proclaiming the good news. Last Sunday, in the section preceding today’s reading, Jesus sent the disciples to extend his ministry. The next verses will tell of their return and what they accomplished. John’s martyrdom, Jesus’ crucifixion, looms over that mission.
But that’s not the whole story. Herod’s banquet is juxtaposed with another banquet. After the twelve return, Jesus will miraculously feed a crowd of more than five thousand people. There are two banquets here; one is an orgy of self-gratification; the other an image of plenty. On their mission, the twelve were dependent on the hospitality of others; they were vulnerable. Jesus looks on a crowd, sees their need, and responds in love and mercy. Herod’s banquet was a birthday party; but it was also an opportunity to bestow favor on courtiers and establish his power and precedence.
Mark is drawing a sharp distinction between worldly kingdoms and the kingdom, the reign of God. In one, there is violence, oppression, the ostentatious display of wealth and power. In the other, there is nonviolence, justice, and food for all. He’s holding a mirror up to Herod Antipas’ ruthlessness, lusts, and weakness.
It’s also a mirror which reflects on us. Where do we place our trust, where are our allegiances—with the kingdom of this world, or with the reign of God?
But more than that, this brief foray into the history and significance of prophecy, both in Hebrew scripture and in the gospels, presents us with another challenge. We hear a lot these days about the prophetic role of the church, calling out the injustices and oppression that surround us, and rightly so. We take to the streets, some of us, we post our outrage on social media, our hearts burn with compassion, anger, and sadness for the plight of the poor, for refugees and immigrants. But is any of that enough?
Are we so on fire for God, so overwhelmed by the chasm between God’s justice and the injustice of the world, between the reign of God, and the kingdoms of the world, between the grotesque displays of the world’s banquets and the messianic feast that our proclamation, our preaching, our witness so annoys the powers and principalities, that they would like our heads delivered on a platter?
The prophets, the Gospel of Mark, Jesus challenge us to do more. It’s a difficult, uncomfortable message, and we do grow weary, our voices go hoarse, our feet ache from the marching. But the vision lies ahead of us—a banquet where all can eat and be satisfied, and all can experience the peace and love of God’s reign. May we not lose heart, lower our voices, or grow weak or afraid. Strengthened by our faith, carried by the Spirit, may we never lose sight of the reign of God into which Jesus invites us and leads us.