Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Lectionary 1st Reading Psalm 2nd Reading Gospel
Anglican lectionary
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28
Catholic lectionary:
1 Corintians 7:32-35

Prophets or Priests?


Deuteronomy 18:15-20

What is a prophet?

In our modern times, we often see self-proclaimed prophets as those who are leaders of doctrines or groups, such as ‘Prophet TB Joshua” with his enormous following. The Biblical prophets were not powerful leaders, rather their role was to speak truth to power.

“The official Temple Institution of priests and Levites held the prestige and authority of the temple rites. This was an inherited status, whereas prophets were called and inspired – there was no ordination for a prophet. So there was always a tension between prophets and priests, and also between prophets and kings (2 Samuel 12:1-7). Kings and priests were the maintainers of social order. The prophets were disrupters of the social consensus. Within the system there is inherent conflict but, ideally, also a balance.

The priestly class, the scribes, the lawyers, and the temple formed a structured, rational religion. They upheld the status quo – whereas prophets called out the leaders on issues of social justice. For the prophets, faithfulness to God was more important than loyalty to the institution. They pointed out the injustices in the nation and the temple. 

Prophets, by their very nature, can’t be right at the center of the social structure. They cannot be full insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either. Their structural position to this day is “on the edge of the inside.” You must know and live the essential rules before you can critique what is not essential or not as important. As Moses, the first prophet, learned, once Pharaoh is your benefactor and protector, there are many questions you can’t ask anymore. You can’t ask about the liberation of slaves in Pharaoh’s house, nor do questions of justice or equality make it to the dining room table.

After Christianity became the established religion of the Western Empire in the 4th century, the priestly mentality pretty much took over in both East and West, and prophets basically disappeared. The Emperors even convened the Councils of the Church for many centuries. I have never come upon a single church in the whole world named “Christ the Prophet.” Maybe now you know why. The top of the hierarchy was where almost all clergy henceforth resided, and usually in the good company of kings and princes who were their patrons. That is the perspective for most of preaching and Scripture interpretation for the next 1700 years: from white, European, educated, comfortable, often celibate males. 

St. Francis saw this problem in the 13th century, and refused priesthood himself (he conceded to some early ordinations in the community, but only if such friars were first committed to radical poverty and humility).” 

Those who are called to the prophetic role of climate justice need to be ‘on the edge of the outside” of the institutional church. Where do you need to be in order to speak truth to power?

Adapted from  Richard Rohr – A self-balancing system

Psalm 111

“The fear of the Lord” – 

What is the fear of the Lord? 

“Many of us were religiously trained to be comfortable with fear.  We were given the quote, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10, Prov. 1:7).  We were taught “fear of God” as a virtue when we were small children.  Our image of God was of a scary God who would punish us if we disobeyed. The institutional church teaches us to obey the rules and often threatens or challenges those who do not toe the line.
But then in the New Testament Jesus say:

32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  (Luke 12;-32)

What then does fear mean? In fact, the word “fear” in both Psalms and Proverbs means the awe that small children have for someone they honor and respect.  It is not the fear of being harmed, but the awe of reverence and honor for someone we look up to.  That is a very different concept,  and the English word “fear” doesn’t do it justice.  To live in awe before God’s wonder is a virtue.”

A creation spirituality that sees God as our Creator can help us to understand this concept of fear as awe. When we look at the incredible power of our Creator God who made us as well as part of the web of life – we must stand in awe “Oh Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works thy hands have made” it is this type of awe that the Old Testament refers to.  And the Almighty God who made the cosmos is the same God who cares for us – and this is when the words of Isaiah strike us afresh:

‘Do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, surely I will help you,
Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’ (41:10)

Adapted from Richard Rohr

Mark 1:21-28

“There are two great strains of spiritual teachers in Judaism, and I think if the truth is told, in all religions. There’s the priestly strain that holds the system together by repeating the tradition. The one we’re less familiar with is the prophetic strain because that one hasn’t been quite as accepted. Prophets are critical of the very system that the priests maintain.

If we have both, we have a certain kind of wholeness or integrity. If we just have priests, we keep repeating the party line and everything is about loyalty, conformity, and following the rules—and that looks like religion. But if we have the priest and the prophet, we have a system constantly refining itself and correcting itself from within. Those two strains very seldom come together. We see it in Moses, who both gathers Israel, and yet is the most critical of his own people. We see it again in Jesus, who loves his people and his Jewish religion, but is lethally critical of hypocrisy and illusion and deceit (see Matthew 23 and Luke 11:45–12:3). 

Richard points out that Jesus’ first action as a prophet involved driving out evil from a religious establishment:  
Jesus enters the synagogue and of course, he recognizes the evil ones, and they recognize him (Mark 1:24). They’re exposed. This is the first exorcism, or casting out of a demon, and it’s in a most amazing place. It’s not in the marketplace, it’s not in the prostitutes, it’s not in the tax collectors. The devil is in the synagogue itself! This is no small symbol.

The only way evil can succeed is to disguise itself as good. And one of the best disguises for evil is religion. Just pretend to love God, go to church every Sunday, recite the creed, and say all the right things. Someone can be racist, be against the poor, hate immigrants, and be totally concerned about making money and being a materialist, but still go to church each Sunday and be “justified” in the eyes of religion.

Those are the things that prophets point out, so prophets aren’t nearly as popular as priests. Priests keep repeating the party line, so there’s no reason to fight them. But prophets do both: they put together the best of the conservative with the best of the liberal, to use contemporary language. They honour the tradition, and they also say what’s phony about the tradition. That’s what fully spiritually mature people can do.“

As climate activists we are called to be prophetic – to honour tradition but to challenge it – both the practices of the institution that are damaging to God’s creation, but also the theology that exalts human beings and does not recognise that God is the creator and we are called to be Earthkeepers. 

Credit: Richard Rohr, “Lots of Priests, Not So Many Prophets,” homily, January 28, 2018
Share the article:

Rev. Dr. Rachel Mash

The environmental Coordinator of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top