By Allan Bevere
On Why Prophets Are Not Recognized in Their Own Time
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors (Matthew 23:29-32).
Being a prophet can be dangerous. As Jesus rightly noted to the scribes and Pharisees, prophets are are not without honor except during their ministries. Why is it so difficult for people to recognize prophets in their own time? It seems that prophets are like artists– their work is not appreciated nor does it become important until after they are dead. Jesus himself recognized this in his own day as he excoriated the religious leaders for revering the prophets their ancestors killed, and questioning their assumption that had they lived in the days of Isaiah, Jeremiah, et al they would have welcomed the prophetic word unlike their forefathers and foremothers.
To be sure, some do recognize prophets in their own time– Elijah and Elisha had their followers. Jesus had his disciples. Martin Luther and John Wesley all had their devoted laity, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had those who marched with him in the streets. But, it seems that generally prophets struggle to convince those with power, those who have a stake in the status quo, those who benefit the most by everything staying as it is. The prophetic word threatens to disrupt the way things are.
Moreover, we human beings tend to judge the prophetic word based upon whether or not we agree with it. We judge a politician to be prophetic if we like her politics. We anoint a pastor as prophet as one who challenges others to believe and act in ways of which we approve. No one ever gives the title prophet to someone whose words simply cannot be assented to in good conscience. I have yet to hear someone say, “I disagree with everything she says! What a prophet!”
I don’t think I have any definitive answer as to why prophets are not recognized in their own time, other than to say that so often we are caught up in the moment in such a way as it is difficult, if not impossible to hear the prophetic word because it comes to us in a way that grates against our sensibilities, and stabs at what we cherish. Perhaps only the longer view of history is needed to make true judgments about the prophetic word. Perhaps only our descendants can truly benefit in a large way by the prophetic word spoken by the prophets in our time, as they stand removed from the heat of the current moment.
I am not confident that Jesus’ people, the church, would necessarily treat Jesus any better than those who rejected him in the world of his day. And like the religious leaders in Matthew 23, it would be presumptuous of us to think otherwise.
We seem only interested in prophets speaking truth to power when it’s our truth to their power. When it’s someone else’s truth to our power, than prophets are not prophetic, they are meddling in our business.