47Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. 48So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute”, 50so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, 51from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. 52Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.’
53 When he went outside, the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile towards him and to cross-examine him about many things, 54lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.
In our Gospel reading of today, Jesus, we might say, is clearly not a happy bunny, or a happy camper. He is effectively declaring open hostilities with the traditional teachers of the faith, the scribes and the Pharisees. The question is: why would he pick such a fight? Wouldn’t it be easier to have kept his head down, and lived a peaceful life?
The answer of course is that Jesus, the living Word of Wisdom and Truth, could not stay silent. From the history of the Hebrews, set out in what we call the Old Testament, Jesus knew that time after time, the Leaders of the nations had killed the prophets, sent from God. They silenced them through murder. Jesus reminds the Leaders that from Abel (the first prophet) to Zechariah (the last prophet), their reaction had been to ‘rid themselves of these troublesome priests’ (to mis-quote King Henry II before the death of Thomas Becket).
This is a theme that Jesus picks up later in Luke’s account, in the form of the parable of the wicked tenants (Luke 20. 9-19). Jesus tells the story of a wealthy landowner (meaning God), who rents out a vineyard (the Land of Israel) to some tenants (meaning the Hebrew nation). Then at harvest time, the Landowner sends out some servants to collect the rent – the servants, of course, standing for God’s prophets. But the servants get murdered by the tenants. So the Landowner sends his own son. Surely the tenants won’t harm him, for surely they love him? But no…the tenants murder the son, and thrown him out of the vineyard. In this simple parable, Jesus underlines again the way that people in power automatically resist anyone who challenges their power, or their status.
But this is precisely the role of prophets. Prophets are those who, despite being disregarded, ignored, or even murdered, are prepared to stand up for truth against the powerful people of the world. They are those who seek to transform the cultural norms of the society they serve – calling people to a transformed vision of the world.
There are prophets in every generation. God continually calls out people of Wisdom whose unlucky task is to try to shift the culture of the day to something more life-giving, more Godly. From our own time, there are many. For Christian prophets, we might look to the example of Martin Luther King, who dreamed a dream of racial equality. Or William Wilberforce, who led the campaign against state-sanctioned slavery. We might think of Mother Theresa, who by her life and example reminded us that every human being is special. We might hold up Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who brought Truth and Reconciliation to South Africa.
But Christians don’t have a monopoly on the truth. There are secular prophets too – or at least people who don’t use the language of religion to try to shift prevailing cultures. We might think of Ghandi, who shifted the colonial culture of India. We might think of David Attenborough and Gretta Thunberg, who are calling a largely deaf humanity to halt the destruction of Creation. We might hold up the example of Malala Yousafzai, the young woman from Afghanistan who passionately argues for the education of girls throughout the world.
(Note – not for preaching – too controversial without space to explore reactions: We might suggest that Karl Marx was a non-religious prophet, who called out the capitalist system for the uniquely unfair and exploitative system that it is. Whether Lenin and Mao then applied his principles wisely is another matter altogether!).
Few of these prophets ever really succeed – at least in their lifetimes. Martin Luther King and Ghandi were murdered. Mother Theresa, David Attenborough and Gretta Thunberg are treated as figures of fun – to be joked about and lampooned. Malala Yousafzai faces the prospect of the Taliban regaining political authority in Afghanistan. And so the cycle of the way the prophets are treated – called out by Jesus – repeats and repeats.
It’s a tragedy. As much as it was for Jesus, it is for today’s prophets too. The fact is that the powerful people of our world lack the motivation to change their ways. They are comfortable and wealthy. They hold the levers of power – whether it’s the media (which lampoons the prophets), or whether its henchmen who can carry out murders.
But our task – is to carry on being prophetic. We, who are followers of the Word of Truth and Wisdom Incarnate, we have a mighty task thrust upon our shoulders. Wherever we live, work, study or play, we are called to speak truth to power. We are called to stand up for what it right, and fair, and just in every situation. In the words of the prophet Joel, we are called to “Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD.“