Prophet’s Reward

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SJF • Proper 8a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.+

I cannot hear that short reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah without picturing him with a wry smile. Jeremiah is, of all of the Old Testament prophets, the prime example of doom and gloom. He even has a separate book of the Old Testament dedicated to his Lamentations — the lamentations he delivered when his prophecies of doom and gloom came true.

In this brief passage, Jeremiah notes that the prophets who came before him — as far back as ancient times (which means ancient to him, which means really ancient to us — prophesied war, famine, and pestilence — much as he does himself. But, he seems to be saying, if a prophet predicts peace, and peace comes, then you’ve really got a prophet sent by the Lord.

He appears to be acknowledging, perhaps as I say with a slightly cynical smile, that given the state of the world it is fairly easy to prophesy war, famine, and pestilence; as these are more or less the normal state of affairs somewhere in the world at any given time — or if not, surely soon to happen somewhere or other.

A social scientist and historian once noted that in the entire documented history of the world there has only been a period of a few dozen years when there hasn’t been a war going on somewhere on our planet. Peace and war seem to be like an elusive balloon — squeeze it in here and it will pop out there. So prophesying war is almost a sure thing — there’s bound to be one somewhere sooner or later, and probably sooner rather than later. You can hardly go wrong!

But for a prophet to promise the coming of peace — that’s a much riskier enterprise, as it so very rarely happens. How long ago is it now that President Bush proudly proclaimed a “mission accomplished”? And yet how many additional conflicts have we become involved in since — Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Libya? Some of you here may be old enough to remember what they called “the domino effect” in the wars in Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Well it sure looks like somebody’s unpacked the dominoes again and set up a card table out on the stretch all the way from Morocco Boulevard to Subcontinent of India Avenue. If, as Paul says, the wages of sin is death, there are plenty of people are working overtime, and getting a bonus into the bargain!

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Jesus, as is so often the case, turns the tables on this warring world. When he speaks of the prophets, it is not their message, whether of peace or of war, that is the focus of his attention, but rather on how that prophet is received and treated. When it comes to hospitality Jesus focuses on the host rather than the guest. Jesus has told his disciples, when he sent them out, to proclaim peace to those to whom they came. What is important is how the host received that greeting of peace.

I noted on Pentecost that “Peace be with you” is the standard way of saying hello in the Middle East — and the proper response is, And with you be peace. So the hosts whom the disciples greet will be judged on the basis of how generous their welcome has been. Do they return that blessing of peace, or not?

Jesus assures his disciples that whoever welcomes them, when they come bringing (after all) the good news of the peaceable Kingdom of God, are in fact welcoming him — and whoever welcomes him will receive the grace and blessing that comes with the presence of God: the true peace that surpasses understanding. “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” Even a cup of cold water given to a disciple in the name of the disciple, will be rewarded out of all proportion to the simplicity of that gift.

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It is, of course, relatively easy to welcome the prophet who brings a promise of peace and good tidings. It is much harder to welcome the one who comes bringing bad news. Jeremiah himself learned that lesson when he got himself thrown into a cistern for having brought bad news to the king. No prophet’s reward for him — or for the king!

Nobody likes bad news. How many people avoid going to the doctor to see to that nagging cough, or that sore that won’t heal, or that abdominal pain — not because they don’t want to be healed but because they don’t want to find out that what they’ve got might be serious — and by delay end up making their condition even more serious.

And just as people will avoid the doctor and hearing his diagnosis, so too people will avoid the prophet and his truthful warnings; For there are maladies of the soul as well as of the body: that sin can eat away at one’s soul like a cancer, or clog up the arteries of one’s spiritual heart until it grows cold and unloving, and stops. And in their folly, some will turn such a prophet away, and refuse to welcome the words of the Good Physician himself, and all of his associates and assistants, who come to warn of the spiritual dangers that lie in our paths, if we allow ourselves to continue oblivious to them.

For the peace that God brings us through such ambassadors is not simply the comfy peace of oblivion, but the attentive active peace of engagement with the Shalom of God. For “Shalom” does not just mean “peace” but completion, wholeness, and integrity. Who would not want to return such a promise with more than a warm welcome or a cup of cold water? God, through the many messengers God has sent and continues to send, offers us this transcendent peace, this completion and wholeness and rest, the removal of the obstacles. Let us embrace it, for of this we can be sure: when a messenger of God, be it a prophet or a disciple, wishes us peace and promises us peace in God’s name, it lies in our hands to receive that peace, and to join in the proclamation as we too become messengers and disciples in the name of God, and of God’s Shalom. God promises us grace, and that’s good enough for me.+