(Lectionary for January 28, 2018)
I admit that this passage has long been a source of fun for many who have read it. At first, it appears to be a very serious attempt to answer an extremely important question: how can one tell if words uttered by someone claiming to be a prophet are to be taken seriously? After all, every age is rife with persons who announce that they have assumed the prophetic mantle from God, who are literal spokespersons from the Almighty. But it has long been certain that not all of them can be speaking words of divine truth for the simple reason that they do not agree with one another! One claims that God abhors all men who wear their hair long, while others say that if any man cuts his hair he has fallen out of favor with God completely. Or another says that if you abort a fetus, God will send you straight to Hades, while another says that God is always pro- life and is thus deeply concerned about both the mother of the baby as well as the ongoing well being of any child born. Someone says that God loves all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation, while others aver that God detests the life style of gay and lesbian folk and will have nothing to do with them, urging all persons to follow God’s way. How can anyone tell whom we are to trust in this?
The answer offered in this passage is finally completely ludicrous. “If a prophet speaks in the name of YHWH, but the thing does not happen or prove true, it is a word that YHWH has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you need not be frightened by it” (Deut.18:22). Well? My crystal ball remains cloudy; how can I know now whether “the thing will happen or prove true?” How long do I wait? How can I know if one or the other demand from a prophetic mouth is “true”? “What is truth,” as Pilate so interestingly asked? These conundrums are posed in a passage that promises that YHWH will raise up a prophet (or “prophets” as the text may at several places be translated) like Moses, the only man in the Hebrew Bible who is said to “speak to God face to face,” like a friend. The early Christian community seized on this passage and applied it to Jesus, the one they called Christ; he it is who is this promised prophet to whom we must listen and whom we must obey. Well and good, but Jesus did not pronounce on all subjects that concern us. He said nothing about gay persons, nothing about abortion, nothing about the length of a man’s hair, nothing about body piercing, nothing about any number of issues that concern some of us deeply. What are we to do?
The answers are simply not simple. I could offer a lengthy litany of divisive and complex answers to issues of the day, provided by many people, claiming the prophetic mantle from God. One springs to mind from just a few days ago. President Trump, during a conversation with a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Oval Office discussing the seemingly intractable question of immigration into the USA from other countries, named some of those countries with a vulgar and noxious descriptor. Though he, and a few of his Republican defenders the next day, denied that he had said that particular word, while one Democratic Senator said quite clearly that he had used it, the defense made on his behalf has become that he did not say “shithole” when referring to Haiti and the continent of Africa, but rather “shithouse.” Exactly how the latter is not nearly as offensive as the former has not been explained by anyone. In either case, his language was appalling, and points to a deep and abiding racism in the man. And though he continues to claim that he is “the least racist person ever interviewed on television,” a patently absurd claim, his words and actions are in fact indications of a pure and unadulterated racism. It needs to be called what it in fact is.
I admit to bring nothing less than disgusted by these mountebanks who defend a crude and racist series of comments by the president of my country. How can they speak as they do when the overwhelming call of God is for universal care and love for all the people whom God has created? How can they imagine that they are speaking for God when Trump speaks only for America, or more accurately only that part of America that imagines he is what we need as spokesperson for our country to the world? When he spouts his racist filth, he does not speak for me, and anyone who defends him casts him or herself as racist, too. In no sense can these religious people be seen as prophets of God. Rather, I can only conclude, using the language of Deuteronomy that they “speak in the name of other gods, yet presume to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded any prophet to speak” (Deut.18:20). The result, concludes the harsh author of Deuteronomy is, “they shall die.” I have no wish that the mighty hand of God might flash from heaven and kill these would-be prophets. But I sincerely wish that they might close their foul mouths and not be taken seriously be anyone ever again.
If it is true, as Martin Luther King quoted on more than one occasion that the “arc of the universe is long and bends toward justice,” may we all point to that conclusion as an indication of a true word of a prophet. If a prophet speaks a word that does not announce justice for all, it is no true word and can safely be derided and avoided. As such, may Donald Trump’s racist and foul mouth be rejected as the cesspool that it is, and may those who defend him equally be rejected as the dangerous fools they have proved themselves to be.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)