When Jesus calls Matthew to be a disciple (Matthew 9:9-13), we’re told that faithful Jews questioned Jesus’ choice because Matthew was a tax collector who hung out with the wrong kind of people.
To respond to the questions of the crowd, Jesus appealed to the prophets Hosea and Micah.
When a growing consensus of conventional wisdom began to form in opposition to his decision, Jesus cited leading figures from Jewish history with which the people would be familiar.
By appealing to the prophets, Jesus was able to borrow from the authority of important voices from the past and temper the heat of present-day concerns with the wisdom and perspective of history.
That’s one of the most important functions of prophetic voices – to provide historical context and perspective to the passionate concerns of the day.
The best prophets have a deep understanding of culture and a gift for compellingly presenting both how things are and how things should be in ways that encourage, challenge and inspire.
In times of turmoil and transition, when institutions and traditions are being challenged, prophets are our guiding lights.
So my question is, “Who are our prophets?” To whom could Jesus appeal to answer our questions and concerns today?
My fear is that for most of us, the answer is no one.
I worry about our knowledge of history and our familiarity with prophets from decades gone by.
Many of us don’t have a lot of voices to provide broader context amid the daily barrage of marketplace and media prophets spouting conventional wisdom on TV.
Jesus responded to the crowd in Matthew 9 with the expectation that his audience would have some knowledge of history – national and religious – as he sought to address their concerns.
But, if Jesus were to appeal to figures from our history, I worry that rather than knowing nods, he’d get a lot of blank stares.
As I thought seriously about this question, I was reminded of the voices I encountered during the course of my education.
They are in a very real sense my prophets. They give context and counterbalance to the heated rhetoric of the day and lend the time-tested weight of history to important conversations and issues.
I’m grateful for English teachers that introduced me to American essayists like Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Benjamin Franklin and to poets like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden.
I’m grateful for a political science education that lets me return to the voices of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.
I’m grateful for the theology professors who exposed me to John Cobb, Paul Tillich, William Stringfellow and Karl Rahner.
I’m grateful for modern-day prophets like Brian Zahnd and Eugene Peterson, whose examples encourage me to be a better pastor.
And, I’m grateful that female voices like those of Barbara Brown Taylor, Diana Butler Bass and Anne Lamott have influence in the current conversation, too.
Even more, I’m reminded of the biblical voices of Jeremiah and Elijah, Isaiah and John the Baptist, Hosea, Micah and Amos.
So when the marketplace prophets in media, government and popular culture speak the truths of consumer capitalism or a particular political ideology, I’m grateful I have other voices to give context and perspective to what I’m hearing.
God’s prophets – in the Bible and now – almost never speak from positions of power or enjoy the amplification of widespread popularity, so we have to actively seek them out and tune our ears to hear their voices.
We are in the middle of significant religious, moral and political conversations in America right now – conversations that deserve a word from God.
Amid these turbulent and uncertain times, it is vital that we consider what prophets we are listening to.
Is God likely to speak through them? More important, how likely are we to listen to – and give priority to – the often countercultural message of God’s prophets?
And most important, what will we do when we hear God speak through them?
Matt Sapp is pastor of Central Baptist Church in Newnan, Georgia.