Sunday, February 1, 2009

Prophets, Priests, Kings and Law

Readings: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Islam has the audacity to claim all the Jewish prophets as Muslim prophets, from Moses to Jesus. So in the interest of inter-faith clarity, I would like to use today's readings to consider how prophethood was and is viewed in Judaism and Christianity.

To begin, note that the archetypal prophet, Moses, was not a priest. His brother Aaron was the priest of the Exodus. This means many things, of which we can immediately extract one. A prophet is not beholden to any religious institution. No institution has the ability to appoint, select, approve or disapprove prophets. The prophet him or herself had better get that straight:

But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak--that prophet shall die.

Moreover, the religious institutions and the people in them are also warned:

Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.

The prophet has only one job: to speak or to do what the LORD commands - to be the LORD's messenger. And nothing else. In Judaism and Christianity, the prophet is not a general, not a head of state, not a priest, not any culturally sanctioned authority figure. The prophet is independent of culture and cultural institutions. In ancient Israel, the prophet came from among the people, and criticized the King, the Priests, and the people themselves.

These institutions were kept separate from the beginning, as commanded by the LORD. Kings were not Priests, and Priests were not Kings. The wielders of temporal power were kept separate and distinct from the wielders of religious authority. And both were kept in check by the prophets, who were kept separate from both.

If this same separation were observed in Islam, the Caliph or Sultan (political ruler), the Imams (leader of prayer), and the prophets would always be separate people. The combination of any two of them in one person would not occur, much less the combination of all three. But this is the innovation of Islam: all three were combined in the Prophet Muhammad. A careless reading of the Qur'an will retroject this combination onto the Jewish prophets. This is an error.

Prophets could innovate, because they taught with authority from the LORD. But they could do more than that. In our Gospel reading, Jesus commands an unclean spirits to leave an unnamed man. In our day, we might say he was a faith healer, who could cure psychosomatic disorders. Or we might say a lot more. While it is impossible to independently authenticate any particular miracle attributed to Jesus, it is quite clear that Jesus, his followers, his competitors, and even his enemies all agreed that he was a worker of astonishing deeds that included healing.

This was an innovation of Jesus: before him, it was common to associate the gift of healing with prophets, but it didn't seem to be such a large part of their activities.

Following Jesus, the Apostle Paul extends Jesus' innovation regarding the relaxation of purity laws about food. Yet, he does not force his innovation regarding food sacrificed to idols on those for whom it would become an obstacle to their faith.

And so, over our readings God goes from severe to lenient. It all depends on the context. There are 613 rules commanded by God in the Old Testament, many of which are now impossible to obey in modern times. It must be that many are set aside or modified, and many are simply forgiven us. Because we are not the same polytheistic rabble that Moses led out of Egypt. We are followers of Jesus, who summed up what it means to obey the LORD's commandments as:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. - Matthew 22:37-40

We might add, as did Micah, "And what does the LORD require of the but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

The Law is the Good Guide, a compass pointing in the direction of true faith. It is not to be used as a straitjacket, or as blinders, or as a cross upon which to crucify those who interpret it differently from ourselves.

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