For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 4 – Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Is this passage about an eschatological character or an exercise in succession planning? The Jews of Jesus’ time certainly thought the former. When John the Baptist appeared, looking strangely like they imagined Elijah would have looked, they asked him if he was ‘The Prophet’. Apparently Moses’ words from Deut 18:15 had been understood to predict a coming person, and Jewish exegesis of the text had arrived at the conclusion that The Prophet was going to appear shortly before the coming of the Messiah. The Gospels certainly seem to have been written with this expectation in mind, so that John could fulfil it, at least as the Forerunner even if not The Prophet.
But perhaps Moses’ intentions were different. When a charismatic leader departs, retires or dies, there is often a sense of let-down as the nature of the organisation inevitably changes. So how do we ensure that the changes which need to be made can happen, without losing the good things which have been good and healthy in the past? Part of my work in the past was with Anglican parishes in vacancy, helping them to think through clearly what they were looking for in a new priest. The Anglican church is notoriously bad at succession planning, only in rare cases appointing a curate already in post as the new vicar, and all too often deciding that having had one kind of leader, for the sake of balance they now need someone very different. In my parish ministry I have seen both a complete disappearance of those things I had worked to hard to lead a parish into, and also really healthy continuation of my ministry into places I would not have been able to lead people myself. It’s all very hit and miss.
So one way of reading this text is to think of Moses giving his death-bed speech (which is what Deuteronomy purports to be) to a bunch of people about whom he is anxious that the journey they have started will be completed well. First of all he passes on some of the wisdom he has learnt as their leader, and in particular the contrast with the practices of the nations around them. This passage is preceded by a warning against the occult goings on of their neighbours, who, in their attempts to get guidance, go to such lengths even as child sacrifice. God’s way is very different, and his prophets will behave very differently. If this passage is in fact about the inauguration of the prophetic movement in Israel, then there are some clear lessons to be learnt, both about prophecy and the prophets themselves. If a charismatic leader gets replaced with an institution, which they inevitably do, then Moses wants the people to know how that institution will work well, continue to be directed by the voice of God, and continue the trajectory of the original leader. And in the days of renewed prophetic gifts as the Holy Spirit is poured out through the charismatic movement, there are some helpful guidelines here too.
The nature of the prophetic is very different from occultism. Divination, sorcery and the other behaviour of the nations is all about what humans want to know: prophecy is about what God wants to reveal. He cannot be manipulated or coerced into telling our fortunes. So it follows that the job of the prophet is not like their sorcerers. Moses is very clear that prophets speak only what God gives them to say, nothing more, nothing less. So his words are not to be ignored or cherry-picked.
But even more telling is the character and role of the prophet. If I had promised my congregations that God would raise up for them ‘a vicar like me’, I wonder what would have come into their minds? (Probs best not to ask!) So what would a prophet like Moses look like? Perhaps as humble as he was. Perhaps someone who was only too keen to delegate power and see the Spirit active in all the people, rather than himself alone? Yet maybe also someone not so non-directive as a leader that he would allow democracy to rule, so that the people could return to Egypt just to get their hands on the melons and garlic. Perhaps someone so powerful an intercessor that he could get God himself to change his plans? But also someone maybe so vulnerable that he could weep in despair before God at the sheer evil of the people, someone who needed support both emotionally and also at times physically. If that’s what Moses looked like, presumably prophets like him should be recognisably similar.
Above all, says Moses, in a way which is echoed in the NT, beware of false prophets, essentially those who speak as if from God without actually having heard from him. In an age when right-wing leaders are happy to use the Holy Bible as props in their propaganda machines, we ought to be wise and careful. That surely is what taking the Lord’s name in vain means.
So maybe this passage has more relevance than we thought. Rather than being about someone whom John the Baptist refused to be, maybe it gives some useful hints for the use of the Spirit’s prophetic gifts in the Church today.