Prophets are... messengers of God in times of crisis!1
As a rule, the prophets sided with the oppressed of Israelite society and attacked, in the name and the word of Yahweh, the social structures that produced such social and economic inequities.2
In Ezekiel 37:1-2,11-14, the prophet says,
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and... set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were many lying in the valley, and they were very dry... He said to me, “Mortal person, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” Therefore prophesy, and say to them: Thus says the Lord God; I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves... I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.
This is an ancient story. It suggests that the suffering of the Israelites was a consequence of exile. Nonetheless, there is a sense in which people in HIV/AIDS epidemic zones are standing in the valley of dry bones, where death and hopelessness seem to reign. They also are saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.” If Ezekiel was sent to prophesy to the dry bones until they came to life, the question is: How can we hear the word of the Lord saying to us, “Prophesy to these dry bones... say to them, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves?” In a world where 21 million people have died of HIV/AIDS in 21 years and 40 million are infected (UNAIDS 2002), we have to realize that our highest call is to become prophets of life.
I contend, therefore, that in the HIV/AIDS era we need to recapture our
prophetic role as scholars of religion, as theologians, ethicists, missiologists,
as the academy, as preachers, faith leaders and members of faith communities.
The questions that I seek to raise here are:
What is prophecy and who is a prophet?
• Their messages insisted on justice: He holds that prophets “attacked
the evil of the society and predicted doom”. Similarly, Hayes says
that “as a rule, the prophets sided with the oppressed of Israelite
society and, in the name and the word of Yahweh, attacked the social structures
that produced such social and economic inequities”.
Turning to another definition, Marta Palma holds that “prophets
are messengers of God in times of crisis”, who “spoke in the
midst of concrete history of a people struggling for liberation and life”.8
Indeed, any reading of prophetic literature indicates that their work
was largely informed by prevailing social “crises”. Some of
the factors that provoked prophecy were religious unfaithfulness of Israel,
social injustice and international oppression. Yet scholars have indicated
that it was the national crisis of exile that became the main background
of most of the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible. According to
Hayes, “The fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC was... a shock of cataclysmic
character with numerous repercussions in the Judean community.”9
Both the pre- and post-exilic conditions inspired the prophets. For example,
Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah’s pre-exilic prophecy warned against the
impending judgment, calling people to repent of social injustice, unfaithfulness
to God, corruption and exploitation of the weak by the leaders.10
In his elaboration of the prophetic message of Amos, Hayes highlights
Research has shown that pre-exilic prophecy warned of the impending disaster, calling people to repent, but once it had happened prophets carried a message of hope to God’s suffering people. Post-exilic prophets such as Ezekiel, Haggai and Zechariah brought a message of life, hope and rebuilding to the devastated nation. They “believed that God would not desert Israel”.12
This brief assessment highlights that “prophets were certainly concerned about the future, but they were also concerned with the whole fabric of their contemporary culture. They were more than predictors; they were preachers and spokespersons who addressed their contemporaries with their understanding of Yahweh’s will and word.”13 Perhaps the role of prophets is best captured by Palma, who holds that prophecy “proclaims abundant life for the marginalized and excluded in the context of our own experience and in the light of our faith, by being open to the Spirit who calls us to discern the times, to denounce all that destroys life and to proclaim God’s new creation for women and men” (emphasis mine).14 I find Palma’s definition instructive, namely, that being prophetic takes being open to the Spirit who calls us to discern and denounce all that destroys life. But maybe most of the time we are not open to God’s Spirit, hence we are unable to discern and denounce injustice and to speak hope to God’s people. This introduction leads us into our own context, that of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
HIV/AIDS is a historical moment of crisis
we compare the crisis moment of Israel and the description of our current
historical condition, it is not hard to see that the HIV/AIDS epidemic
needs prophets and prophecy. Is this epidemic a crisis moment? This question
can be broken down into more detail. Does HIV/AIDS:
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we could well say, “Where have all the prophets gone?” Has the Lord ceased “to call” us to be prophets? Has the Lord ceased to pour the Spirit of power, the Spirit that enables us to speak, upon all flesh (Acts 2:17)? Does the Lord’s word no longer come upon us? Has the Lord ceased to denounce social injustice, corruption, national and international injustice? In short, are we prophesying to this crisis and speaking hope to God’s hurting world? Biblical literature attests to some unwilling prophets like Jeremiah and Jonah, and perhaps we are in this category. Are we sailing to Tarshish, when we have been sent to Nineveh? Biblical literature also attests to false prophets – those whose words do not represent the compassion and love of God the Creator. Are we such prophets?
Some may well say that prophecy is a Hebrew Bible institution. I believe that HIV/AIDS is a national and global crisis that calls all of us to prophesy – to speak truth to power, to speak hope to hopelessness, to announce life in the valley of death. Prophecy is essential today in the fight against HIV/AIDS. (While exile was a war-induced crisis among the Israelites, we hear today that HIV/AIDS is worse than war. It kills more people each year than war.) Therefore, far from prophecy being a phenomenon that characterized the Hebrew Bible institutions only, it is still the centre of New Testament faith, for Jesus himself was a prophet, so much so that all those who call themselves Christians should express their faith prophetically. To highlight the centrality of prophecy to New Testament faith, I will discuss its role in the gospels and Acts.
The New Testament and prophecy
Simeon and Anna, Luke 2:25-38: The gospel of Luke tells us that there was a man named Simeon who was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him” (v.25). He came to see Jesus when he was first presented in the temple for birth rituals. Simeon thanked God that he had now seen “God’s salvation” and prophesied about Jesus’ future. The text continues by telling us that there was also prophet Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, who came in and began to “speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38). In the words of these two prophets, we hear a message of hope, namely the salvation and redemption of God’s people.
John the Baptist, Matthew 3/Luke 3:1-22: According to the gospel of Luke
“the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness”
(Luke 3:2). In a typical prophetic style John the Baptist’s message:
Jesus as a prophet, Luke 4:18-19: Jesus himself was a prophet and the
gospels are an attestation of his prophetic message. I would like to examine
his prophetic role much more closely, for it is on the grounds of his
prophecies that the Christian church must fully embrace the prophetic
role in the HIV/AIDS era by addressing social injustice, which serves
as the transmission wire in the spread of HIV/AIDS. So let us look at
the prophetic role of Jesus who:
Identifying with prophets: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me!”
story goes on to say that Jesus
Jesus not only read from the words and book of Isaiah the prophet, he also identified himself with this prophet and took up his prophetic agenda. This is clear in the words he added after he finished his reading, namely, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v.21). Further, the content of his chosen passage is prophetic since it highlights that Jesus dedicated his ministry to challenging social injustice by pronouncing liberation to the poor, the captives and the sick. Jesus also announced hope since he came “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. That is, he came to proclaim the Jubilee or social and economic justice for all members of the society (Lev. 25:8-55). This, in my reading, is the gospel, and speaks justice and wellness in all aspects of our lives.
The significance of this passage, as many scholars have pointed out, lies in the fact that, according to Luke, Jesus used it to unveil the agenda of his public ministry. This agenda is highlighted as a prophetic role of speaking hope to the hopeless, and calling for justice for those whose rights are trampled upon. But, and perhaps most importantly, the significance of the passage lies in the willingness of Jesus to take up the prophetic role – to announce simply and courageously that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me!” It is the Spirit of the Lord which, when it is upon us, brings the word of the Lord upon us and enables us to speak the good news to God’s people. His listeners, who responded first with silence, grasped Jesus’ assumption of this prophetic role and “all eyes were fixed on him”. When Jesus interpreted the passage to them, saying, “today this scripture is fulfilled in your midst”, then they were glad, and said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” In other words, the audience was saying, is this not the boy from our neighbourhood? Is this not the child whose parents are known to us? Remember, Jesus had come to Nazareth, his home place where everyone knew him. And so they ask, “Does the Spirit of the Lord come upon such ordinary people in our neighbourhood?” Should prophets rise and speak in our home towns? Yes, the text tells us.
Apart from his own self-identification with prophets, the people around Jesus also identified him with prophets. We learn that when Herod heard about the deeds of Jesus, he suspected that John the Baptist had been raised from death (Mark 6; Luke 9:7-9); some identified him with Elijah (Luke 9:8). But perhaps the most significant indication that Jesus was generally identified with prophets is the passage where Jesus paused to do an evaluation of his ministry by asking his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matt. 16:13-14). The general perception was that Jesus was a prophet as he was firmly identified with them. Jesus did not deny this identification with prophets. In fact, the gospel of Luke, which holds that he began by identifying himself with prophets, also affirms that as he went towards the end of his public ministry, when he knowingly travelled to Jerusalem to meet his death, he said, “It is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (13:33). The prophetic role of Jesus was attested by his concern for social justice.
Social justice: “God will quickly grant justice to them”
Second, all the gospels attest strongly to the fact that Jesus healed people who were sick with many different diseases (Mark 1:29-45). Not only did he heal them from physical illness, he healed them from social and psychological illness also. This is evident when he touched and healed the dreaded lepers, thus restoring them to both physical and social health. Lepers were isolated from the rest of the society. By touching them Jesus broke the stigma, the fear that surrounded their illness. By healing them he restored them back to the society. Jesus also dealt with psychological illnesses engendered by social oppression; there are many stories of him exorcising evil spirits that had taken possession of people, denying them normal life (Matt. 15:21-28; Luke 8:26-39). Sometimes he preferred to forgive people their sins (Luke 7:47-48), thus restoring their spiritual health. In short, Jesus sought the total health of people, thus demonstrating that it is God’s will that all should be fully healed economically, socially and physically. Certainly Jesus’ holistic healing ministry offers us a firm theological framework, a basis upon which we should insist on healing as a divine right for all people.
Even in Jesus’ day, and among his people, there were people who were discriminated against on the basis of their race. Good examples were the Samaritans and Canaanites. The ministry of Jesus made efforts to break racial/ethnic stigma. When Jesus asked for water from a Samaritan woman, she was surprised and said, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9). The narrator explains to us, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” The parable of the Good Samaritan is another good example. Here Jesus showed that a Jewish priest and a Levite are not necessarily better than a Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), and that, in fact, a Samaritan has better social values. This point is also underlined in the story of ten lepers who were healed (Luke 17:11-19). But Jesus also had to confront his own racial/ethnic discrimination. This is evident in the story of the Canaanite woman, who came to ask him to heal her daughter possesssed by a demon (Matt. 15:21-28). Jesus did not talk to her and did not wish to help her, for he held that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. When the woman finally fell before him, begging for his mercy, Jesus did not hesitate to tell her that he could not take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs (v.26). But this face-to-face confrontation with a Canaanite woman, who also pointed out in her own way that Canaanite children are also children who need the bread of healing, brought Jesus to revise his stand.
Jesus’ association with the less privileged is also evident in his relationship with women. Women of his time and society, as in most of our societies, were denied economic, decision-making, leadership and legal power on the basis of their gender. Jesus began to fight for gender justice by befriending women (John 11), allowing them to follow him (Luke 8:1-3), allowing the unclean bleeding woman to touch him (Mark 5:24-34), sending them to preach (John 4:39-42, 20:11), thus giving them public leadership roles. He also insisted that the law should apply to and protect both women and men (John 8:1-11). At one point we hear that his own disciples were surprised to find him talking to a woman by the well. The story tells us, however, that none of them dared to say, “What do you want?” or “Why are you speaking with her?” (John 4:27). I think this is an important point. Namely, that even though during Jesus’ time there were gender divisions, he brought his disciples to realize and to accept that he talked to women! Jesus revealed himself to them, causing them to leave behind their water containers (John 4:28)!
Religious hypocrisy: “You have neglected weightier matters”
To start with the scriptures, Jesus made it clear that they are holy and will not change, but they should never be used to endorse social oppression. This comes through in his Sermon on the Mount and the numerous debates he had with Pharisees regarding the sabbath. In Matthew 5:17-18, he began by asserting that not one iota would be removed from the scriptures, for he had come to fulfill them. After this, he began to quote the scriptures and change them. This was done in formulaic style, which began, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times...”, then he quoted from the scriptures. He went on to say, “But I say to you...” In this second part, Jesus reformulated what was said by the ancient scriptures (5:17-47). One good example is, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘you shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all... Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’” (vv.33-34,37). Scholars have argued about what Jesus was doing: was he changing the scriptures or just interpreting them? I think he did both. What I regard as important is that Jesus would not tolerate any injustice that is legitimized by saying, “It is written in the scriptures.” Rather, he had the courage to say prophetically, “But I say to you.” He was ready to say that if what is written has come to support corruption, injustice and oppression, then it must go, for the word of the Lord must affirm God’s people, not oppress them.
This standpoint is further attested in his debates with his fellow Jewish teachers on the subject of what could or could not be done during the sabbath. Jesus healed on the sabbath (Luke 6:1-11, 13:10-17, 14:1-6); harvested fruits to eat, and when his fellow teachers protested, he said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9). Jesus was insistent that, although it is in the law that we must keep the sabbath, we must not lose sight of the fact that “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Not only did Jesus feel free to challenge as ungodly the scriptures that were used to further injustice, he also challenged religious leaders who upheld such interpretations. We have already said that Jesus was always debating with the Pharisees over the sabbath. Generally, he criticized their whole approach to religion, as in Matthew 23 where he began by acknowledging their power and their teaching but faults their practice (vv.1-3). These religious leaders, Jesus held, “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (v.4). They “lock people out of the kingdom of heaven” (vv.13-14). Jesus made scathing criticism of Pharisees and scribes for their religious hypocrisy. Echoing both Amos and Hosea, he told them the problem is that they “tithe mint, dill and cumin”, and yet they had “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (23:23). Although Jesus was in less direct confrontation with the Sadducees, he was not afraid to tell them where their religiosity was hypocritical and unacceptable because it authorized social injustice.
King Herod was frightened: “The king of the Jews is born”
Jesus also preached a subversive message when he announced that the kingdom of God is near, indeed that it is already here! If the kingdom of God is here, then Pilate, Herod and their national collaborators do well to tremble for their days are numbered. With the announcement of another kingdom, their authority is declared oppressive and unacceptable before God. The announcement was a prophetic challenge to oppressive international and national political structures.
The prophetic message of Jesus and HIV/AIDS
A prophetic church: “I will pour my Spirit upon all flesh”
1. Upon his death and resurrection, Jesus commissioned the believers to go and teach what he taught (Matt. 28:18-20). If we are persuaded that Jesus was a prophet, then Christ’s followers must also be prophetic. Those who train Christian/church leaders must teach them to be prophetic leaders, who foster prophetic congregations and faith communities. Yet perhaps what we need here is to understand fully what Jesus Christ taught. As we have seen, his teachings and deeds included preaching the good news to the poor, healing the sick, breaking social stigma, criticizing oppressive institutions and scriptures in order to empower women, children, Samaritans and other marginalized groups. This constituted the gospel of Christ.
2. At the very founding of the church, the Spirit of the Lord was poured “upon all flesh” of the believers, giving Christians the power to speak (Acts 2:1-22). They all began to speak in tongues. On the basis of the fact that the Spirit of the Lord has been poured upon all of us, then we can all confidently go back to our cities, towns, villages, places of residence or work, and simply say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18).
3. If we do not prophesy, then we are not living out our Christian faith, for we have all been called and sent to go out and call. If we do not prophesy, we are failing Jesus Christ who sent the church to speak and gave the church the Spirit to prophesy. And in this HIV/AIDS epidemic, whom shall the Lord send but us? But of course, as Palma tells us, it is instructive to realize that prophecy involves willingness on our side: to be open to the Spirit – the Spirit that enables us to discern and denounce injustice as well as to speak hope and justice to God’s people. The option to be the prophet Jonah is there, and sometimes God does not want or need to bury us in the stomach of a whale in order to bring us back to our responsibility.
Teaching our student ministers to prophesy
How, then, can we use prophecy as a method of teaching and fighting HIV/AIDS?
I suggest the following:
As I have said, one of the ways of using prophecy in teaching is to “encourage
our students to carry out a self-assessment on how they have been, or
failed to be, prophetic in their context, and to take a prophetic stance
against all forms of injustice, which today is fertile soil for HIV/AIDS”.
This, however, must begin with us as teachers. In groups, begin by filling
in individually the graph below:
Use the following items:
Together, pick one item and write a prophetic paragraph. Choose the image you wish to use to help your audience to see your point clearly.
Back to table of contents