Opening the Word: Unwelcome prophet

It’s never easy to hear truth from those we know well.

A husband or wife may experience bitterness of heart when their spouse tells them that they’re not carrying their weight around the home. They’re too quick to look at their smartphone at the dinner table. They’re setting a bad example.

It’s never easy to hear truth from those we know well.

The prophets were well known. We know them as the major and minor prophets, canonical figures in our Scriptures.

But to their earliest listeners, they were just Jeremiah down the street, Isaiah from around the corner, Ezekiel from grade school.

Still, it’s not just familiarity that breeds discomfort with the prophetic word. It is precisely because the word of truth is divine, coming from the love of God that no human being can comprehend on his or her own.

The prophetic word often seems too impossible, too impractical, just too much. Yes, the law of the Lord is something we are meant to contemplate, to delight in.

But there are the pragmatic politics of establishing covenants with other nations, with gathering revenue that secures the nation against other lands. Surely, the Lord can’t be serious about relying solely upon God. After all, the Lord helps those who help themselves.

But the prophets refuse these excuses. They cry out, “What will you do on the day of punishment, when the storm comes from afar? To whom will you flee for help? Where will you leave your wealth?” (Is 10:3).

There is no hiding before the Word of the Lord. Before divine truth. Before the truth of love.

Jesus Christ is the divine Word made flesh. In his word, we hear truth itself.

So, imagine what it would have been like for his friends, neighbors and family to hear Jesus preaching in their midst. Telling them that the kingdom of God is at hand. That the moment of judgment has come. Make a decision. Or else.

Isn’t this Mary’s son? Is this not just a carpenter? Come on, man. Simmer down.

Of course to us, Jesus Christ is not our neighbor. We know him as the splendor of the Father, the Word made flesh, the Son of God resurrected from the dead.

There remains for us a danger of familiarity, a sense that we’ve heard the Scriptures and that’s enough.

But the more dangerous thing for us is that we seek to reduce the divine quality of our now-familiar Lord’s speech.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Mt 5:38-39).

Whoa, Jesus. I assume what you really meant was try to be kind to everyone. Surely, you didn’t mean love your enemy to the end. Become an object to be stomped upon. Sometimes, you have to return violence for violence. You have to wage war against the enemy.

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When we try to reduce the power of divine speech to what is sensible or logical, we are like Jesus’ neighbors who cannot welcome the prophet in their midst.

The truth of Jesus’ words hurt because we operate out of power politics, out of a logic of violence, rather than the peace of the Gospel. If we want to welcome the prophet Jesus Christ in our midst, we have to take him seriously.

Even when it’s hard to hear the truth.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.