taking the words of Jesus seriously

These times seem challenging in so many ways. It feels difficult if not impossible in these days to claim hope in the midst of fear and discouragement, order in the midst of chaos, advocacy and justice for so many poor and hungry, unity when diversity seems so assaultive, the prophetic message to broken social systems, Jesus “principles for life” in the face of amorality, and the prophetic call to be “political, sometimes partisan.” Polarization has become a norm where fear seemingly continues to gain momentum and integrity appears to be only an option. In this climate, vulnerable populations become more and more isolated and excluded while sarcasm becomes an art form. This list isn’t exhaustive.

I am a Christian, but that’s not the answer I give if I am asked about my faith.  Having no idea what the asker assumes “Christian” means, it’s unlikely I fit their assumptions.  I prefer the admittedly cumbersome Follower of the Message and Movement of Jesus and the Prophets. As a progressive, this inevitably mandates that I be active in political process. The faith I hold relates clearly and vigorously to health care, education, housing, hunger, and wealth distribution, to name a few.

St. Paul spoke of his “dual citizenship”—a citizen of Rome and a citizen of the Kingdom of God. He wanted to be clear and consistent about which had priority and which informed the other. Might Paul’s example, together with relevant teachings and the life of Jesus, guide an exploration of our “dual citizenship” in the U.S. and in the Kingdom of God?

This inevitably brings forward the calling and role of the prophet and the prophetic mission of Jesus.  Six Old Testament books of history chronicle the sequence of kings of the united-then-divided kingdoms. Within that narrative is typically a reference to the prophet serving during each king’s reign.  Some were “resident prophets” like Nathan, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; others rode in like a storm from afar, like Amos and Micah.  They felt mandated to be “critical lovers” (or perhaps “loving critics”) of the nation.  They affirmed faithfulness: leading and living in alignment with the covenant and policies of justice.  They vigorously challenged injustice, exhibited by the loyalty to God being compromised by competing loyalties.

Their critique had two dimensions—personal and systemic.  The prophets confronted unjust judges and an unjust judicial system as well; unjust business practices and a corrupt economic system; unjust political leaders and a failed political system; unjust religious leaders and a corrupted religious system.

With their stories in mind, we might ask ourselves, where are the prophets of today?  If the voice of prophecy is not silent in our time, where is it being sounded with vigor and volume, relentlessness and courage? Perhaps because there were costs to such brazen and unapologetic words and actions, we collectively are hesitant to embark on the dangerous journey of the prophet. What happened to John the Baptist? Moses, feeling overwhelmed and confused, pleaded for relief or death. Jeremiah, constantly wracked with sadness and anguish, resented his consent to God’s call. And Jesus paid the ultimate price!

READ: Finding Security as the World Is Upended: Reflections on Isaiah 26

I write with a call to biblical reflection, exploring together the personal and collective implications of our faith, and celebrating the guidance, support and encouragement of Christian community.  I want us, in this new year, to ask tough questions and accept differing answers, to explore more than teach, to exchange more than present.

Knowing a more thorough list would be lengthier, may I offer four basic “themes of faithfulness” to our citizenship in the Kingdom of God?

COMPASSION is the most frequently named motivation of Jesus’ words and actions.  Whether his words and actions are tender or confronting, encouraging or challenging, successful or disappointing, compassion seems his consistent starting point. 

INCLUSION is both an Old and New Testament norm. Jesus “sat at table” with both social outcasts and religious leaders. He welcomed foreigners, making socially hated Samaritans heroes of stories. He was threatened with early execution when he offered a hated Syrian as an example of faithfulness.  He even extended the embrace of forgiveness to his executioners.

A FOCUS ON THE LEAST, including re-instatement of the Sabbath and Jubilee years, “God’s redistribution plan,” and the focus of Jesus’ last parable. Among the “least” were women, whom Jesus not only welcomed in ways that dramatically challenged the mores, assumptions, and protocol of his day, but for whom he vigorously advocated in word and action.

STEWARDSHIP: A call to be faithful tenders of the creation, just harvesting and distribution of its resources, mindful extraction and waste production.  Equitable distribution of resources and wealth.

These become lenses through which I reflect on my national citizenship, mindful of alignment and/or dissonance between my nation’s apparent principles and those of my faith.  Lenses by which I can become a “loving critic” of my nation, its prevailing policies, the actions of its leaders, and the decisions about what policies and which candidates I advocate for.

May we ask each of these four themes what are their affirmations of, and, what are their challenges to our “other citizenship.”  What are we called, indeed compelled, to say or do in light of this inquiry?  Perhaps this will awakened in us and others the call to be a prophetic voice and presence.

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