Sometimes a reading or theme appears in our Sunday cycle and I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable for reasons I do not initially recognize. In such cases, I wonder if the reading or theme has special meaning for me. My eventual understanding of it comes to depend on one or more other parts of Scripture.
An example of such a reading is the first one we heard today, selections from the eighth chapter of the First Book of Kings. I don’t like that passage. It leaves me uncomfortable. And now I understand why.
The time has finally arrived to dedicate the temple in Jerusalem. A huge crowd has gathered for this event. King Solomon stands before the altar, spreads his hands heavenward, and offers an extensive prayer. What we hear in today’s reading is only a portion of what he says.
Solomon functions on this occasion as both king and priest. Yet the Bible and the Christian tradition set forth a trio of important roles: king, priest, and prophet. These roles appear in both the Old and New Testaments. Christianity sees them realized preeminently in Jesus, both in his earthbound life and in his current existence. Jesus is the eternal prophet, priest, and king.
So when Solomon stands before the altar, he is king in succession to David his father. He is also priest, lifting his hands in prayer as leader of a vast congregation. But what he does has no connection with the role of prophet.
This begs the question of what a prophet does. Walter Brueggemann, an outstanding biblical scholar, helps us out with this definition: “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”( Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination. Second ed. (Fortress Press, 2001, 3)
I’ll say that again. “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”
The great prophets of ancient Israel promoted an alternative consciousness that brought them into conflict with kings. Their words and actions repeatedly testified that the Lord was Israel’s true ruler.
In particular, the prophets spoke out against two popular forms of national apostasy: one was the worship of idols, the other was social injustice. These sins amounted to rejection of the primary commands found in the Torah: love God with all you are and love your neighbor as yourself.
The prophet refuses to accept as absolute the consciousness of the dominant culture. The prophet promotes an alternative consciousness. Where a dominant culture prevails, its king represents that culture, and so cannot at the same time function as a prophet, promoting an alternative consciousness.
Thus Solomon the king and priest foreshadows his descendant Jesus in regard to two of the roles that Jesus occupies, but not in regard to the prophetic role.
Here is the source of my unhappiness with today’s passage. I recognize in Solomon at the altar something of Christ the king and Christ the priest, but nothing of Christ the prophet.
This omission does not occur by accident, however. Instead,
the achievement of Solomon was precisely a social order which prophets must criticize.
Walter Brueggemann cites three features of Solomon’s social order that demanded prophetic response.
• First, Israel had become a consumer society. Scarcity for all had given way to abundance for a few. Some people became sated and refused to share; others went without even the basics of life. Justice was on the decline.
• Second, oppressive social policies came to prevail. Some people lived off the labor of others, and their interests were protected. The nation traded freedom for security and allowed no questioning of itself.
• The third feature was static religion. The Exodus God whose shrine had been a traveler’s tent became a royal God domesticated by a stone house. The Divine was co-opted and no longer performed surprising new deeds to liberate the oppressed.
As Solomon countered an economics of equality with an economics of affluence for some, and countered a politics of justice with a politics of oppression, so he also countered a religion of God’s holy freedom with a religion of God’s cheap accessibility.
Developments such as these bring about something that afflicts entire populations. Brueggemann calls this affliction royal consciousness. This royal consciousness amounts to a numbing that becomes comprehensive. A society learns not to hear the cries of the afflicted, even their own.
As Brueggemann states: “Passion as the capacity and readiness, to suffer, to die, and to feel is the enemy of imperial reality. Imperial economics is designed to keep people satiated so that they do not notice. Its politics is intended to block out the cries of the denied ones. Its religion is to be an opiate so that no one discerns misery alive in the heart of God.”( Brueggemann, 35.)
Over against this, place what I mentioned earlier: “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”
While royal consciousness leads people to numbness, including numbness about death in all its forms, prophetic ministry and imagination bring people to engage their own experiences of suffering and death. The prophets help us overcome numbness, feel again, weep again in order that some day we may rejoice.
Brueggemann identifies strategies to make this happen.
• Out of the historical past the prophet reactivates symbols that are reliable vehicles for redemptive honesty. Thus the biblical prophets make repeated appeal to the Exodus experience, the original liberation story for Israel.
• The prophet speaks evocatively, poetically, bringing to public expression the fear and pain that members of the community want desperately to own and to share. This honest articulation requires resistance to barriers imposed by royal consciousness.
• The prophet also speaks about the death that surrounds us and gnaws inside us, death manifest in alienation, rootlessness, and an unending desire for acquisition. This speech is marked, not by rage or sentimentality, but by a candor that disarms the status quo.
Here the tool to cut through royal consciousness is grief public and stubborn, lament over what once had life but is now dying or dead. Candid recognition of death threatens and undoes royal consciousness, because in Solomon’s domain failure is unacceptable, distasteful, and there can be no failure more severe than death.
What difference does all this make to us?
Twenty-first century royal consciousness flourishes in America numbing people to pain, even their own. Our social order, like that of Solomon, is a consumer society characterized by oppressive policies and, all too often, static religion. Prophetic ministry, prophetic imagination evokes an alternative, one that enhance life for everybody.
This alternative includes listening to the cries of the afflicted rather than blocking them out, allowing us all to lament over what should not tolerated or ignored.
We must expose through powerful symbols the death that surrounds us. We must demonstrate unrelenting candor that will disrupt the status quo.
We must grieve publicly without fear or shame and thus cut through royal consciousness in the name of an alternative reality.
The Catechism calls on Christians “to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.”( The Book of Common Prayer (Church Publishing, 1979), 856.)
We should do so. We must grieve as well. We must mourn in order to disperse the consciousness of Solomon and welcome the consciousness of Christ, who himself wept over the city of Jerusalem for killing prophets and stoning those sent to it.
As mourners we will be comforted. God will wipe away the tears from our eyes. This is a beatitude – and a promise. Whoever displays their grief over what should not be tolerated or ignored empowers all of us to usher in a society more just, more compassionate, more alive.
Copyright 2015, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.