Are We Ignoring the Prophets?

One of the traditional ways for Christians to understand the prophets of ancient Israel is to see the prophets as those who predicted the coming of the Messiah. Such connections were made early on, even in the New Testament itself, making it is hard for Christians to hear "a voice cries, ’in the wilderness’" (Isa 40:3) and not think of John the Baptist (Mk 1:3) or "a virgin shall conceive" (Isa 7:14) and not think of the annunciation to Mary (Mt 1:23). This way of looking at the prophets has given us a vocabulary to speak of who Jesus is and what he was about. It has lent richness to our liturgical celebrations and enabled us to see Jesus firmly grounded in the Jewish tradition that began with Abraham. But does this approach do justice to the prophets and to their message? If we simply think of prophets as predictors of Christ, then their job is done, and apart from being aware of the prophetic statements that are linked to Christ, we need not bother with prophets or their message. But isn’t that precisely the problem? Haven’t we ignored the message of the prophets for too long? If the Bible is the Word of God and if it is a living text that continues to have meaning for us today, then don’t we have a responsibility to read the whole book of a prophet and not just pull out a few sentences and apply them to Jesus? Contemporary biblical scholars have been attending to questions about who prophets were, how they functioned in the ancient Israel, and what their message was. Though there are no easy answers to these questions, what is clear is that the prophets had a message that was a challenge to those in power. In the prophecies of Amos and Isaiah the elites stand indicted for their failure in justice, especially justice to the poor; in the prophecies of Hosea and Jeremiah no compromise in one’s worship of God will be tolerated. These prophets use strong language that was vehement in tone and shocking in harshness and crudeness. Their words made their audiences uncomfortable, and when we hear them they still have the power to make us uncomfortable. We would rather tame the prophets, put them in a box labeled "Jesus predictors" and dismiss them, but if scripture means anything to us, we must allow ourselves to be challenged and transformed by its message, especially the message of the prophets in their call to create a just society centered on God. Pauline Viviano
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