There’s always a lens. Your eye’s a lens, and if it gets tired, or old, or damaged, it can’t see what’s really there. When that happens you get another lens. Glasses bend the light and the distortion enables you to see clearly. When I read through the prophets, I sometimes think that their way of communicating is a sort “light bending distortion” that’s intended to help people see more clearly. Jeremiah after all, wears the same underwear for a multi-day hike, then buries it in a cave for a little while, and then retrieves it to use as a sermon illustration, saying, “do you see this underwear? That’s how filthy you are in God’s eyes.” Isaiah walks around naked. Ezekiel lays on the ground in his front yard and plays with bricks for about a year before shaving his head and burning a bit of the hair, and casting another bit to the wind. Exaggeration is a rhetorical tool.
We can embrace their means because we live in an age where communicators use exaggeration and caricature to capture our attention and imagination. You’ve heard of Lady Gaga? She brings prophetic means to a (in my opinion) not so prophetic message. We’re so familiar with larger than life figures that the exaggeration of the prophets is easy for us to understand.
There’s another aspect of prophetic ministry though, that I believe is lost on us because of an aspect of our culture that so absent. All prophets offered a two fold message of deconstruction and reconstruction. “You’ve blown it and judgement is coming” is the deconstruction part where sins are exposed through this profound experiential education lessons (busted pottery – marrying prostitutes – you know the stuff). Then there’s the construction part which reads “…but don’t worry, God will be faithful and rebuild the nation”. Bad news-Good news. That’s the way it works. Here’s roughly what we do with it:
“You need to hear the bad news that you’re a sinner” we say, and then we go on the Roman road, or the sermon on the mount, or some such place to prove that we’ve fallen short and missed the mark, which we have. We continue, “but don’t worry! You can pray today to receive Christ, and mercy will triumph over judgement and you’ll be saved from God’s wrath” which I also believe to be utterly true. Then we try to close it out like this, “So how about accepting Christ as your personal savior, etc. etc.”
PERSONAL SAVIOR??? Where did that language come from? I don’t recall Jesus ever calling himself that or preaching about how he came to be Peter’s, or James’, or Zacheus’ “personal savior”. That language comes from Americana, from a culture obsessed with individual rights to life, liberty, owning assault rifles, aborting children as a means of sex selection, paying little or no taxes, creating one’s on personal sexual ethic, and dietary ethic, and work ethic, and preaching the glories of how personal responsibility should bring personal freedom, and personal bad choices should be penalized by people paying personal penalties. It’s all very…um, personal. Into such a culture this Jesus, who says, “If you were the only person in the world, I’d die for you” was created. That might be true – but it misses the point almost entirely.
What an individualized culture has a hard time doing is thinking in a communitarian fashion. When Isaiah predicts the coming of the Messiah it’s comforting to the people hearing his message, in spite of the fact the Messiah won’t be showing up for another 500-600 years. Can you imagine speaking to people gathered after 9-11, or something worse, and saying, ‘Be Comforted! Before five or six hundred years have passed, a leader will be elected who will have the wisdom and wherewithal to fix our dire situation’. I’m curious: Would you find such a message comforting? I didn’t think so – me neither.
And yet Israel did find comfort in that message, because they didn’t view themselves as individual pods of private rights whose personal fate and well being were the only things in the universe that mattered. They viewed themselves, as most people have for most of history, as part of something bigger. They belonged to a tribe, a culture, a people group. Because of this, they’d certainly lament their own personal loss, but the personal loss would be far less grievous than the collective loss, and promises that the whole would eventually thrive would be met with joy, even if the hearers didn’t live to see it in their lifetime.
God’s certainly FOR personal responsibility, and I could show you stories that show personal judgement for personal sin. But there are many more stories about a collective suffering for someone’s sin (remember Achan) and the promise of a collective restoration being met with relief, though the relief was centuries yet to come.
The closest thing I can see to this in my small world comes from conversations I have with people in the military. They fully get the concept that they’re part of something bigger than themselves, bigger than their lives. They’re part of a solidarity. They’ve a mission that transcends personal concerns or even personal opinions. They also understand that another person’s irresponsibility might cost the lives of some people who were doing their jobs just fine. Imagine that – being so linked together that there’s a sense of… wait for it: common good – a sense that if you win, I win. That if you lose, I lose.
Paul talked about this of course. We talk about too. I’m just not sure we really live it; nor am I sure what to do about it. The reality is that we’re such a fragmented, individualized, customized, isolated people that I suspect most of us don’t know who our tribe really is, or that it’s a tribe that will continue because with the next promotion to Boston, or Baton Rouge, or whatever – there they go.
Though I’m merely musing here, and though there’s a lot don’t know about this subject, here’s what I do know to be true about people who are trying to live with a greater sense of community:
1. They know people who are different than them.
2. They hear the cries of the poor and respond more than they blame
3. They recognize that a culture of personal responsibility and a culture of empowerment and charity aren’t contradictory
What do you think? Can churches help recover a sense of community? Is a national common good a possibility? How about a global common good? I know such a common good’s coming, as spoken of by these prophets. But if we’re the presence of the future, how can we help communitarian values grow in our families, churches, cities?
I welcome your thoughts…