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To be a Prophet

Thomas J Parlette

“To Be a Prophet”

Deuteronomy 18: 15-20



With the Super Bowl fast approaching, I must admit, I’m really not that interested in the game this year. I just can’t bring myself to root for either team. So this year, I’m going to be much more interested in the Super Bowl commercials.

Every year, dozens of companies roll out their most creative, most memorable commercials for the big game – and they pay a premium price, of course. This year, the price is up to 5 million dollars for a 30 second ad. So if you’re going to put a commercial on during the Super Bowl – it better be worth the money.

Many companies go the spokesperson route. They hire a celebrity to pitch their products – William Shatner for, Joe DiMaggio for Mr. Coffee or Michael Jordan for tagless Hanes underwear.

This doesn’t always work out so well, though. Just ask Subway, when they fired their spokesman Jared Fogle. Or Smithfield Foods, when they had to part ways with Paula Deen. Or Nike, when they dumped Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong because of their scandals.

Those companies put a lot of money into those spokespeople, and their behavior turned out to be an embarrassment instead. Not what they paid for.

And not what the public wanted either. Spokespeople have power and influence because the public trusts them, or looks up to them in some way. And when these scandals happen, it’s not just the companies that feel let down, we feel let down as well. We feel betrayed when people we trust and respect stumble. We thought we could trust their word, their endorsement – but no.

So how do we know who we can trust?

Moses is dealing with that same question in our passage from Deuteronomy today, as are the people of Capernaum in our Gospel text.

How do you tell if a prophet is from God?

Who can we trust to bring us a word from God?

How do we identify God’s spokesperson?

The Book of Deuteronomy is an interesting book. It’s actually a long speech made by Moses near the end of Israel’s time in the wilderness. Moses sounds a bit like an over protective parent sending their child off to sleep away camp for the first time. There is so much advice, instruction, so many rules and reminders crammed into this speech. Moses knows he’s not going with the people any further, so he gives them every possible instruction and warning he can think of before sending them off on their own.

Biblical scholars point out that the Book of Deuteronomy resembles a treaty between God and Israel. It has some historical background, goes over the principles of a covenant, lays out obligations and expectations, reviews the consequences if obligations are not met and gives instructions about preserving the agreement.

Our passage this morning deals with the consequences of listening to false prophets, and how to tell the difference between a false prophet and a true prophet – a true spokesperson for God.

Frederick Buechner points out the “prophet” means “spokesperson”, not “fortuneteller.” Being a prophet has nothing to do with predicting the future. To be a prophet is to speak for God. As Buechner writes: “The prophets were drunk on God, and in the presence of their terrible tippsiness, no one was ever comfortable. With a total lack of tact, they roared out against phoniness and corruption wherever they found them. They were the terror of kings and priests. No prophet is on record as having asked for the job. When God put the finger on Isaiah, Isaiah said, “How long, O Lord?”, and couldn’t have been exactly reassured by the answer he was given. Jeremiah pleaded that he was much too young for that type of work. Like Robert Frost’s poem, a prophet’s quarrel with the world is deep down a lover’s quarrel. If they didn’t love the world, they probably wouldn’t bother to tell it that it’s going to hell. They’d just let it go.”(1)

In Deuteronomy 18, Moses offers two criteria for a real prophet…

  1. The prophet will be like Moses,
  2. The prophet will be raised up from among God’s own people.

In other words, real prophets will speak and act in line with the law of God, as Moses has done, and whatever they prophesy will affect them as much as the people because they have been called out from among the people.

These are important distinctions because they ground the prophet’s words and work in the word of God and in the community to which and out of which God calls them. Unlike a celebrity endorser, a prophet should be well known by those in his or her community before they ever receive the call. People will have had the opportunity to observe their public persona in private, witness their character in action, and determine whether their message matches the Scriptures they have studied and discerned together in community. As God told Moses, the prophet will “speak to them everything I command” and whoever fails to heed that word will be held “accountable.” The prophet will have a stake in the community to whom he or she preaches, thus whatever the prophet proclaims for the community will affect him or her as well. To put it another way, the prophets word is less directed toward “you” and more toward “us.”

According to theologian Richard Rohr, “By definition, the prophet has to be on the edge of the inside of institutional religion. It’s a hard position to hard, and it must be held both structurally and personally, with wisdom and grace. There are many times it would be easier to leave the system or to stick to the company line and just go along with the game. Jesus understood this. He loved and respected his Jewish religion, yet he pushed the envelope wide open. He often healed people on the Sabbath, which was a deliberate statement against making a practice into a dogma that was higher than human need. Yet, he honored the same Jewish establishment by telling some he had healed to “go show yourselves to the priests.” Jesus walked the thin line of a true prophet.

Ironically, a prophet must be educated inside the system in order to have the freedom to critique that very system. You have to know the rules of any tradition, and you have to respect those rules enough to know why they do exist – and thus how to break them properly, for the sake of a larger and more essential value. This is what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught America, and what Gandhi taught the British. Here is the key – you can only unlock systems from the inside. A prophet critiques a system by quoting its own documents, constitutions, heroes and Scriptures against its present practice. That’s why they eventually win, but at a huge price to themselves.”(2)

For Moses, a true prophet, will be like him – a spokesperson for God, telling people what God wants them to hear.

And a true prophet will be raised up from within the community, as Jesus himself was – preaching to “us”, instead of “you.” The prophet who is called by God, calls the community back to the covenant, this treaty between God and God’s people.

God’s provision of a prophet or spokesperson and God’s way of calling them, tells us something about God. These words from Moses assure us that God’s divine revelation is not a one and done deal. It keeps going. God promises to keep speaking, to keep revealing the divine will, to continue to be with us and guide us through the prophets. Maybe not through Moses anymore – but God will call another prophet, another spokesperson, another pastor for the people. God will come to us, through our prophets and preachers, and God will continue to hold us accountable to the covenant.

A fellow preacher named William Carl, a past president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, likes to say that “Preachers who understand what’s really occurring as they stand in their pulpits on Sunday mornings know that it is God speaking through them. Their goal is to be the window through which the light of God shines. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, it is God who gives them the words to say week after week, year after year. So, not only should the people not worry about the future, but the preacher God calls shouldn’t worry about the words they will say. God will provide.

Pastors are like ushers at the performance hall where a grand opera is about to be performed. Ushers are not the point; the great spectacle on the stage that is about to happen is the point. So also, pastors are ushering people into the presence of the Almighty. Preachers are not the point; Christ is. Our job, as preachers, as prophets, is to get out of the way and allow the glory of God to shine through.”(3)

Usher people into the presence of the Almighty, and then get out of the way and let the glory of God shine through.

That’s what it is to be a prophet.

May God be praised. Amen.


  1. Homiletics, Vol. 30, No.1, p.38.
  2. Ibid… p.40.
  3. William J Carl III, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p. 293.