Prophets, at least as we use the term now, lack identification with those they criticise. Those they come to save are on the other side of the dividing line, and those who are condemned have to make it over to the prophet’s side of the river. The modern-day prophet tends toward black and white judgment, and speak with deep resentment, not sympathy. Or so it seems to me.
Although, not just modern prophets. John the Baptist, who the NT sees as the last of the OT style prophets, is more than a bit like this. I imagine he would have approved of the parable of the sheep and the goats we heard in Matthew a couple of weeks back. A nice, easy division between those in and those out, the good and the bad, the blessed and the damned. (I was going to say a nice dividing line down the middle, but John the Baptist was anything but in the middle; most people wouldn’t have made it by John’s judgement.)
He offered a water baptism to escape the fiery wrath to come, too bad about the unwashed.
Jesus was seen as a prophet. But he is more than a prophet. Not just in stature as indicated by John today with the metaphor of the sandal. Jesus stands apart also because of his willingness to identify with those he came to save. This identification begins with his baptism by John in the Jordan. The significance of Jesus’ baptism is brought out particularly in Matthew’s Gospel. For the Baptist the messiah cannot, should not, be baptised. That’s for sinners. Jesus should be doing the baptising. There is a divide that should not, cannot, be broken. Jesus disagreed. And, of course, Jesus’ death on the cross: complete and utter identification to the point of godforsakenness – you can’t get any deeper identification with sinners than that.
The black and white condemnation of a prophet just doesn’t sound like Jesus. He is more than this. (Just as his good news of the kingdom is more than a parable about dividing sheep and goats.) Indeed, John the Baptist doesn’t sound like Jesus. John thought this himself. John had serious doubts about Jesus before he, John, died. Prophets are often graceless. Jesus was full of grace and truth.
We all have a bit of black and white condemnation in us. But more likely in a church like this, we might meet the same gracelessness but in a softer version. Something like, “If only everyone could just love one another,” or “If only people would be kinder/more respectful etc.” Sounds reasonable, but such sentiments lack grace. Behind it is the assumption that people are the problem, and the solution lies with people. That lacks grace. People might be the problem, but the solution lies with God. This is why God became human as Jesus. That’s why Jesus was baptised by John and died on the cross. God is with us in our human failure, not as a prophet, but as more than a prophet.
Gracelessness also encourages despair. Where’s there to go after “if only people would …”? I suppose we could condemn them, force them, or I suppose we could just keep trying, plod on because what else is there to do? I think a lot of people are in that place of plodding on.
When I pray for the kingdom I don’t pray, “If only people would be kinder etc.” It’s self-righteous. I pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done …” We are not those who have fallen into despair or cynicism or just plod on, we live by hope because it is God’s kingdom. Grace is alive and well in the world. Jesus is risen. (Come Lord Jesus!)