Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)

God’s prophets surround us in our communities

Painting of Jesus carrying cross by Hieronymus Bosch
"Carrying the cross," by Hieronymus Bosch; from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee; licensed under CC0.

April 2, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9a

A repeated refrain throughout scripture is that those who should listen to prophets frequently do not. Kings are perhaps the most obvious offenders (for example, 1 Kings 11:37-39, 14:7-14; Amos 7:10-13; Jeremiah 36:20-26; 2 Chronicles 24:19) and the people of God are the next (for example, Jeremiah 7:27-28; Nehemiah 9:26; Luke 16:31). Lest we fall into an anti-Jewish trope, we should note also that followers of Jesus are no less likely to have problems responding properly to God’s prophets (for example, 1 Corinthians 14:26-33a) and/or listening to the false ones (for example, Matthew 24:11; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 1 John 4:1). Thus, while pharisees and other Jewish contemporaries of Jesus may have the reputation for persecuting God’s messengers, it is undoubtedly true that across history, more of God’s prophets have been martyred by “Babylon” (in other words, gentile imperial power) than by Jerusalem (see also, Revelation 18:24).

The first reading for Palm Sunday is another occurrence of this leitmotif. In Isaiah 50:4-9a, as well, we are presented with a prophet who is abused by his hearers and to whom no one listens: “I gave my back to those who struck me, / and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; / I did not hide my face / from insult and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6 New Revised Standard Version).

Given this persistent theme dispersed across the canon, I find it remarkable that so often our response to God’s command, “Listen to the prophets!” is righteous indignation. Many of us are quick to answer, “Yeah! How come no one listens to me?” Indeed, as is the case with listening in general, we are far more sensitive to those times when we are ignored than we are to those times when we do not hear.

The truth is that scripture admonishes people for failing to listen to the prophets far more frequently than it faults them for unsuccessfully being one. This might be surprising for some preachers and for many in our congregations. It is a compelling sermon indeed to tell people that prophets are rare, and that prophetic truth is faint. In such a setting, merely encouraging people to speak the truth (rather than to do anything) can feel sufficient. But that is not what God calls us to. To be clear, should we have the truth, I believe we should speak it to power; if we see injustice, we should shout tirelessly to dismantle it. But these prophetic acts need an audience, and for some of us (especially if we are relatively well off), in these situations hearer might be our assigned role more often than speaker. This can be difficult to accept because it is humbling. Like Naaman, the Aramean military commander who sought healing from Israel’s God, we would rather God honor us with a miracle or a noble task than assign us a humiliating act of obedience that no one will see (2 Kings 5:9-14).

I teach Hebrew Bible/Old Testament courses at a seminary. In one of my units on the biblical prophets, I ask my students: “According to the Bible, are prophets born or made?” It is the kind of question that does not really have a correct answer, or rather, it has more than one. Arguably, both kinds of prophets can be found in scripture. What often intrigues my students as they search for these answers, however, is how frequently people do not ask to be prophets in the Bible, and further, how often they seem not to want the job once they have it (for example, Jeremiah 20:7-18; Isaiah 50:4-6; Luke 22:42). Being a prophet of God usually involves a degree of suffering and for many it is not a role they would have chosen, had they had the option.

If we understand both suffering and being ignored to be fundamental qualities of playing the role of prophet according to the Bible, our consciousness might expand to realize that today God’s prophets are everywhere. They speak of injustice, inequality, and violence but few listen. They suffer and have only God to vindicate them (Isaiah 50:8). Thus, for those of us who are fortunate enough not to be counted as one of God’s prophets, merely passing on their message is not enough. Worse, we can garble it. It is like that old, silly game, “telephone”: When the unperturbed are trusted to carry forward a testimony of injustice, we cannot help but hear only what we expect to hear and repeat only what we think should be said.

Some may wish to blame the rise of social media for this widespread preference for playing the prophet rather than for doing the hard work of justice. Admittedly, thanks to technology, it is easy today for anyone to speak publicly about inequality and societal wrongs, even if they never do much more about the issues than that. I am less certain, however, that our phones and feeds have changed us that much, at least in this particular way. As scripture reminds us, there have always been those who would much rather talk about justice than do it, especially when the enactment of justice would destabilize their own comforts. Likewise, even as technology gives us more ways to get our message out, it also provides those in power with more tools for ignoring those whom God would have them hear.

In the end, the way forward is the same as it has always been: Listen to the prophets and worry less about whether others perceive us as being one of them. God’s prophets surround us in our communities, in our families, and in our memories of those no longer with us. We can recognize them because they look like the speaker in Isaiah 50:4-9a. In faith, we can trust that God vindicates them. But in the meantime, will we attend to them? Will we listen to what God is saying to us through them? Or will we ignore them like so many others, and thus eventually be worn out like a garment and eaten up by the moth (verse 9)? And if that is the fate we choose, did we ever even really want to be a prophet to begin with?