Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ancient Prophets and Contemporary Culture

This semester in the Scripture class on the Prophets, the third-year theology students were asked to apply the concepts and lessons they had learned from the ancient prophets to contemporary culture for their final exam.  Brian Bergeron from the Diocese of Helena submitted this response.  Dr. Elaine Park taught the course and led the way through the prophetic writings.

The Prophet and the Shepherd
by Brian Bergeron

In light of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, modern day Christians recognize Jesus Christ as "the good shepherd," sent to do the Father's divine will (John 10:1-18).  Specifically mentioning the role of the shepherd, the Gospel of John discusses that the sheep hear and know the voice of the shepherd (10:3-4), that the sheep will follow their shepherd (10:4), and that the sheep flee from the stranger amongst them (10:5).

However, the prophets of YHWH found in the Old Testament knew of the Incarnation only through prophesy, and oftentimes through the word of God passing through them.  As such, while the prophets of the Old Testament regularly acted as both prophet and shepherd, only a handful of them specifically mentioned their role as shepherd in their prophetic mission.  Thus, the prophetic shepherding of Amos,  Ezekiel, Isaiah (Deutero-Isaiah), Moses, Jonah, and Zechariah bear witness to the prophetic task placed before these respective men who have been called by God to His people back to right relationship.

Brian Bergeron

As the Gospel of John attests, the role of the shepherd is to bring the people back to God.  Further developed, the role of the shepherd draws its full strength from the fact that it is God, and not the individual, who seeks the fallen away sheep.  According to the Webster's Dictionary, a shepherd is "a person who protects, guides, or watches over other people" (1211).  As people of faith, we would further stipulate that a shepherd works on behalf of God who sends the shepherd out to protect, guide and watch over the people of God.

Thus, through the vocation of the prophetic shepherd, God calls his chosen to bring the people home, which appears to be a contradiction to Psalm 49 which states that "death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend" (14).  While the psalmist further elaborates that God will ransom his soul from Sheol (49:15), the prophetic revelation by God further substantiates the claim that God would prefer to seek humanity before their descent into Sheol and restore them to right relationship with Himself.

Drawing upon the shepherd motif of the Old Testament prophetic characters, the Book of Exodus provides the story of Moses.  Although the prophet Moses is not officially designated as a prophet in the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel, Moses nonetheless endured a prophetic call from God that called him forth into serving the people as their shepherd.

As the Exodus account of the Israelite people attests, Moses brings the message of God to Pharaoh, and following Pharaoh's hardness of heart, leads the people into the desert towards the Promised Land.  While the prophetic story of Moses shepherding God's people is much longer and detailed, this brief synopsis of the story demonstrates the role of the shepherd in Moses' vocation: he heard God's call, he heeded the call, and through the people recognizing God through Moses' voice, the people were shepherded.

The shepherding motif of the Old Testament further runs through the writings of the prophets, proclaimed to those people of God both in the Promised Land and in exile.  As shepherds of the people, the prophets Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Amos are especially known from their shepherding skills amongst God's people.  As the Scriptures reveal, Amos' profession prior to his prophetic call was that of a shepherd, and as such, prepared Amos for the prophetic travels he would be called upon to entertain (1:1).  As a prophet faced with confronting a people bent on violence and brutality, Amos shepherded the people from their immoral ways against men, women and children, for the thriving of the community (3:5).

The prophet Ezekiel was also called to shepherd the exiled people, bringing God and His voice into the world of fracture for the people to return to (34:11 ff).  Likewise, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, claiming that Cyrus "is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose" (44:28).  The prophet Zechariah, however, served as a prophet to the people of Israel before an angry God.  Sent to "become a shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter" (10:4), Zechariah accepted his role as shepherd of the doomed (10:7) so that He might restore their relationship with God.

The role of the prophetic shepherd is not a position that only existed in the Old Testament.  Having been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, each of the baptized participates in the munera of Christ, namely each serve as priest, prophet and king.  In this office of ministry that each participates in, each of the baptized is called to go before the people of their state of life and proclaim the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.

Through the successful discharge of their prophetic office, each of the baptized dives deeper into the mystery of Christ and carries out the mission of the prophetic shepherds of old; namely, they hear and heed God's call, and with this message, deliver it to the people.

Furthermore, the people of the covenant established by Jesus Christ live as prophetic shepherds through their role as evangelizers in a world so desperate for the Gospel.  As coined by St. Francis of Assisi, each Christian is called to spread the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.  Through our everyday actions, the people of God today must use their faith for the evangelization of the world, striving for the conversion of people to the love of God.  Drawing on examples of faith from the Old Testament, each of us should strive to encounter God in unique ways like Moses did, and through faithfulness to God, bring the people through an exodus from sin to the borders of the promised land where God might better provide for their needs.

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