Prophets and Priests

Somebody put a quote on twitter a few days ago that I’ve been thinking about a lot. It basically said “young preachers who want to be prophets should first strive to be priests.”

Before I go any further, I want to make sure and clarify what is meant by “prophet” and “priest.”

Many of us have a mental image of the prophetic role as someone who sees the future, has supernatural visions, hears voices…or all of the above. While this has certainly been the case in several instances, it should not be used a general descriptor. The role of the prophet has been described as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” It is the call to inform the emperor that he is, in fact, quite naked. The prophet is called to imagine what life would look like were we to experience the reign of God; the coming of the kingdom, in our midst…and to help others imagine in such a way as well.

In this conversation “priest,” does not imply someone who wears all black and changes their first name to Father. Instead it refers to the pastoral role of caring for the spiritual and emotional needs of others. In scripture the metaphor is that of shepherd; one who protects, defends, comforts and guides.

For years I’ve listened to people tell me that young people have no place being prophets – its only after you’ve learned the system, earned your stripes, as it were, that you have a right to be critical of it. I’ve always had 2 major problems with this idea.

1) I look around and, with a few notable exceptions, many of those who’ve spent enough time in the system to offer critique seem most interested in keeping things calm and perhaps protecting their hard fought place in that system. Perhaps they’ve experienced a Shawshank-like institutionalization, maybe they just don’t have the energy anymore or maybe they’ve learned how to make the system work for them. Whatever the reason, it begs the question of whether we should keep the younger people from serving as prophets when the older people refuse to do so.

2) My other problem is that neither scripture nor history seem to agree with this position. Samuel was a young man, David was a young man, the apostles were young, Mary was young, Esther was young… (I would point out that Jesus was my age when he began his paradigmatically prophetic ministry…but, being the eternal Logos and all, Jesus was what we might call, an old soul.) Throughout history it has been youth movements that have often caused the most important and needed social change and revolution.

As far as being a priest before being a prophet, again scripture doesn’t share this prerequisite. Some of the prophets, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, were priests… but many were not. There were schools of prophets in ancient Israel; prestigious and in high demand among the elite… and then there were the nut-jobs, like John the Baptizer who everyone knew were a little off their rocker, but whose words carried wisdom beyond the person.

I realize that the prophet/priest comment is not meant in quite these literal terms. At its purest it is a statement about loving people. A warning to hold up both the afflicting the comfortable AND comforting the afflicted aspects.

But honestly, sometimes the “be a priest first” requirement is merely a new spin on the old political adage, “first you get along then you go along.” – In others words, this little bit of advice can seem a touch business-as-usual given the radical reshaping of world systems and rejection of political pandering modeled by Christ.

With that said, it is still a needed reminder to young men and women that in their (or shall I say, “our”) zeal, we must not forget Paul’s reminder that without love we are, at best, just a bothersome noise. This point is well received.

Perhaps part of the problem is that many of us, young and old alike, seem to confuse being a jerk with being a prophet. We confuse healthy confrontation with someone who enjoys picking a fight. We confuse speaking the truth with saying whatever you want however you want because you have some external validation which provides diplomatic immunity.

The ability to identify someone’s insecurities and point out their flaws doesn’t make you a prophet, it makes you a bully. Just because (or perhaps especially when) you do this in a humorous way doesn’t make you less sinister, it doubles your guilt.

I do not want there to be any confusion, so let me be as clear as possible. The prophetic call is not a free pass to run around being an ass. It does not release you from the call to offer compassion or mercy to the weak. Again, the prophetic call is just as much about comforting the afflicted as it is about afflicting the comfortable.

For the sake of full disclosure, yes, I am well aware that several prophets did seem to have, shall we say, diplomacy issues. I guess if you’re going up against someone with all the cards perhaps you can’t afford to bluff. But beware of temptation. Calling people white-washed tombs can be addictive. Its easy to enjoy the rush so much that you begin throwing out zingers at the slightest offense (real or imagined)…and once you cross the line to afflicting the afflicted, by proxy you’re also comforting the comfortable and the prophet’s finger is pointed at you as the one who stole that poor guy’s lamb (if you missed that reference, let me know and we’ll read about a dangerously exciting example of rhetorically dominating a warrior-poet king.)

Being angry or rejecting authority does not mean that you have a prophetic calling on your life. A chip on the shoulder does not a prophet make. It is important to remember that the prophetic role involves more than critiquing the system, it involves casting a compelling vision of God’s alternative to the present system. If both the criticism and the engagement are not in your heart, you may be called to another role.

However, here is the very painful truth as far as I can tell: the time for sitting around pretending that things are mostly okay and just need a few tweaks here and there is over. The time when God’s prophets could afford to bite their tongues until society deemed them properly invested (as if that would ever happen) has past. Like everyone else, the prophets must remember the admonition to put on love first, but once they are clothed with love, it is time to let that love lead them to acknowledge the brood of vipers wearing sheep costumes (I love mixed metaphors). The prophetic role is, in a sense, like being a missionary sent to the church.

Just as in mission work, the soil may not always be receptive or hospitable. But before we get to wound up in testing the acidity of the sandy-loam mixture upon which we tread, its interesting to remember that in Jesus’ parable about good vs bad soil, the farmer wasn’t all that careful where he scattered the seed. We often gloss over that little tid-bit because we don’t plant much. Perhaps it was just a necessary story-telling device. Or perhaps, once again, Jesus was describing the upside-down nature of this kingdom. The seed gets scattered everywhere, it is the soil’s response to the seed rather than predetermined markers of receptivity which determine its “good” or “bad” status.

I mentioned before that a healthy prophetic ministry combines criticism with engagement. Similarly, for the message to be received with open ears people must a) mourn the current state of affairs and b) have the emotional capacity for hopeful imagination to be fanned into flame. Those whose heads are buried in their…sand, and those whose hopes have been thoroughly crushed will both likely be just as resistant to the call for change as those who actually benefit from things staying as they are.

For this reason the role of the prophet is always painful and seldom externally rewarding. It should not be undertaken by any, save those who have been called and can do no other. Wounds and painful pasts will often exist in the life of the prophet, but someone operating out of untreated woundedness (the “walking wounded” as Nouwen and others have referred to them) will likely only bring more harm to themselves and others. They may have a tendency to overcorrect or unconsciously embark on campaigns born more of personal vendetta and retribution to those who have wronged them than out of a desire to help others imagine a life under the reign of the new kingdom.

With all that being said, I’m not sure that those who would be prophets should first strive to be priests. However, just because you like causing a scene it doesn’t mean you’re a prophet. Lead with the imagination, save the white-washed tombs for when you need them.


Posted on February 18, 2011, in christ journey, Missional church, pastoral ministry, priest, prophet. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I sense some angst. What is driving these thoughts? Very interesting to say the least.grace and peace…gibby

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