I have been spending a lot of time with friends lately, a motley crew of old Jews. Not high school or college buddies, or bird hunting or fishing pals, nor even my old political cohorts with whom I used to roam the capitol’s corridors. No, these are not childhood friends, though they have always been present in my life.
When I say old I mean really old; I’m talking guys that go back to around the eighth century. They dress oddly; mostly animal skins and robes woven from flax and hemp. No Brooks Brothers suits and not a Rolex watch in the bunch! I’ve caught a few slurping a little wine on occasion, but none will touch Scotch or Bourbon even though I’ve courteously offered both. And cigars are out of the question – even my finest Cubans!
The lessons of the old Jews
Their stories are incredible and their adventures are spellbinding. These guys revel in the passionate telling of their astounding experiences that only requires belief in an omnipotent God to be believed.
They chronicle their accounts with somewhat peculiar phrases: “so says the Lord thy God” or “like a lamb led to slaughter” or “for everything there is a Season“ or “can a leopard change its spots?” and “there’s nothing new under the sun” are all among the sayings they first coined.”
At times they can be brutally blunt. One once spoke to me very sternly and incredulously, saying “do you not know? Have you not heard?” As if to express surprise at my own stupidity and lack of understanding.
One of these old Jews got swallowed up by a “big fish” and was later spit out. I had heard this story before and always assumed it was a whale. But he insists it was just a “big fish.” Another was fed by crows while he hid in a cave from a wicked queen who wanted to kill him. One was led into a vast valley of dead dry bones and told to preach to the bones and speak life into them, kind of a “game of thrones” type scene. Another found himself in a rather precarious situation in a den of lions. One of the older gentlemen never experienced death, but was miraculously escorted straight to heaven in a chariot of fire.
The hope of the old Jews
Miracles are commonplace with these gentlemen. Hope is never lost in the telling of their stories. These guys have great stories and are thought provoking fun to be around. My “cup runneth over” in their presence.
From them I have learned that every situation holds the possibility of a miracle.
They walk most everywhere they go and, kinda like Elvis, don’t use last names. In fact, one of the most provocative of the bunch apparently has no known name at all and is simply called “the preacher.”
Scores of these old guys are around, but I’ve only spent time with some of the ones that wrote books or had books written about them.
You are, no doubt, acquainted with some of them. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Elisha, Elijah, Jonah Joel, and Malachi are a few of the more familiar names. But let’s not forget my two personal favorites, Amos and ole Micah.
I’ve known about these guys a long time, but only recently spent serious quality time with them. As I’ve reacquainted myself with these old friends, I’ve come to see them as mentors, advisers, political consultants, councilors and even therapists.
Who are these old Jews?
They are the prophets of the Old Testament.
God spoke to and through these guys! According to the gospels, even Jesus quoted them in his own ministry. They were old guys even in Jesus’ day. Their message was still relevant then and it still is today.
I intend to spend more time with these guys and, hopefully, get to know them even better.
Like most relationships, my interactions with these Old Testament prophets centers on my own interests, experiences and education. I see these old guys through, not only a spiritual lens, but also a magnifying glass that sheds light on today’s world and its politics.
So what is it that these ancient Hebrew prophets teach us about today’s boisterous and unpredictable world and its unhinged politics?
How would a Prophet’s bumper sticker read?
From my time with them it has become clear, in modern marketing parlance, that they have two “branding” messages in common. Each be reduced to bumper sticker formats. One, “Justice and Righteousness” and two, “Repent, be patient, a savior is coming.”
The parallel themes of “Justice,” doing what’s fair, and “Righteousness,” doing what’s right, run throughout their ministries, regardless of the century in which they operated.
The theme begins with ole Amos lyrically saying, “Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”(Amos 5:24) and Isaiah chimes in saying, “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. (Isaiah 1:27) Then Hosea and Micah add love to the melody. “Hold fast to love and justice.” (Hosea 12:6) and “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah 6:8)
Spend just a little time with these old guys and you will quickly realize the political platform upon which these Hebrew gentlemen stand gives priority to the poor, the dispossessed, and the vulnerable among us. For these prophets, the truest test of societal well-being is how the poor, the unprotected, the damned and the despised are treated.
Matthew, inspired heir of these classical Hebrew prophets, said it even more succinctly in the gospels. He quoted the Lord Jesus himself, who warned judgment would be made on how “the least of these” are treated. (Matthew 25:45) Specifically, the widow, the stranger (immigrants), the orphan, the prisoner, the disabled and those in hopeless poverty.
One does not have to spend much time with these old Jews to understand that, to a man, they passionately advocated for those who had no political power, no rich relations, no social networks, and certainly no legacy college admissions!
Our economic health vs the condition of “the least of these”
My time with these old guys has convinced me they see the primary barometer of economic health as the condition of “the least of these.” How many luxury cars are sold, or country club dues are paid, or shiny useless trinkets are bought in the holiday season are not important!
Listen to what Isaiah told me:
“Learn to do well – seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow – – Zion will be relieved with justice, and they who return to her with righteousness.” (Isaiah 1:17, 27)
And Hosea goes even further when he makes seeking justice for the poor symbolic of God’s Betrothal to humanity:
“And I will betroth you unto me forever, and I will betroth you in righteousness, justice, loving kindness, and compassion. And I will betroth you unto me in faithfulness. And you shall know the lord.” (Hosea 2:21-22)
My old Hebrew buddies are the greatest champions of social justice the world has ever seen! In today’s terminology they would be labeled community organizers and public policy advocates.
These old Jews are not puny prophets. There’s not a fraidy-cat in the bunch! They are not timid. None of them mince their words. Jeremiah is always scolding us for failures to care for the needy. He once castigated an entire generation, saying “in your skirts is found the blood of the souls of the innocent poor.” (Jeremiah 2:34) And crusty old Ezekiel shoots us right between the eyes by rebuking the entire nation for “using oppression, robbing and defrauding the poor and needy, and extorting from the stranger.” (Ezekiel 22:29)
My visits with these old guys tell me that their obsessions with justice for the poor, the outcast, the stranger, and, yes, even the disenfranchised, are stated as a divine imperative. After all, God was speaking to and through these old Jews! That’s what God’s inerrant word says!
How would the old Jews appraise today’s society?
As I shared my hospitality with these old guys and enjoyed fellowship with each one I wondered how their teachings and prophecies applied to today. After all, these guys were writing, teaching and prophesying thousands of years ago. What can today’s society learn from these old Jews? Then it dawned on me and I hope on you; God’s word is timeless. You know, the same yesterday, today and forever!
So what’s going on in America today? If we are being judged in accordance with the standards these divinely inspired old Jews established, how are we doing?
Well, not so well! Consider just a few facts:
- Over 14 million children are living in abject poverty in our country! Over 4 million white children, over 3.4 million black children and over 4.9 million Latino children live in poverty. Those numbers are increasing at a growth rate of about 2 percent each and every year.
- When is the last time a prominent American leader of either political party made it part of their brand to speak for these poor children? John F. Kennedy in 1960?, maybe Lyndon B Johnson in 1964? Or perhaps, Robert F. Kennedy in 1968? Compared to 1968, a whopping 60% more Americans are living below the poverty line today than then, a total of 41 million people.
- There is a strange irony when it comes to the places where the “least of these “ live. The states with the highest poverty rates are in the south. Our own state of Mississippi is, of course the poorest of the poor.
- And ironically, it is in those same states that the highest rates of voter suppression of Black people take place. Through this racialized voter suppression, politicians who could not be elected anywhere else or by any other means get elected. Once in power, they support draconian policies that hurt the poor.
- All but one of these southern,states have shamelessly refused to expand Medicaid and thereby provide health insurance for those who need it most. Make no mistake, the plantation mentality of the old antebellum south is alive and well.
- While a larger percentage of blacks are living in poverty, in raw numbers there are actually far more white than black people living and, yes working, below the poverty line.
What is really behind the blame game?
We hear a great deal today from our politicians about the middle class, but very little about the suffering of those in abject poverty! Many of God’s children do not have access to food, safe drinking water, health care, quality education, and even shelter! It’s true and it’s disgraceful!
Most of today’s white nationalist mob actually argue that poverty is the poor’s own fault. They say the children’s parents, if there are any, are lazy and are drags on the rest of us! In fact, if one listens carefully to what they say, it’s clear they blame all of today’s problems on the poor: the economy, crime rates, healthcare cost, poor educational achievement, corruption, etc. It’s all blamed on the damned, the deplored, the despised, the other, “the least of these.”
They argue greed is good and trickledown economics is the best means of addressing the issue. This ideology was once correctly labeled “benign neglect.” Of course, it’s all about race, but doggone it, it shouldn’t be! As one of the “Make America great again” crowd, who happens to be in a position of significant political power, said to me recently, “there ain’t no votes in helping poor folks.”
Brother Isaiah warns us about that: “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights, and to those who make women and children their prey.” (Isaiah 10:1)
The Prophetic “Bumper Sticker Philosophies” can work
“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) In 1968 America had 180,000 people of all races being held in prison. Today the number is over 5 million. That’s more than China, which has two billion more people than us. The plain, old fashioned truth is America’s public policies of the last 6 decades have not only ignored poverty, but criminalized it!! Not much justice, mercy or humility in that fact, is there, Micah?
Jeremiah didn’t say God said send a tweet. He didn’t say send an email! He didn’t say PRAY for those who PREY on the helpless! No he said God told him to “go down to the palace” and tell them to stop hurting the poor. Tell them to treat the strangers in the land justly. Tell them to remember when they were captive strangers in a strange land. Tell them to stop advancing policies that hurt people. Tell them to stop disrespecting God’s children. Tell them to protect “the least of these!” (Jeremiah 22)
And then the old farm boy Amos, who was setting over in the back corner spoke up and said; “I’ve faced this situation before. I remember when God called me to face a wicked, egotistical ruler that had been put in power by the influence of other nations.” Amos said the ruler placed taxes on the poor and cut taxes for the rich and supported the greed of the privileged. He didn’t have lavish golf retreats all around the world, but he did have palaces of unheard of splendor scattered all around. His name was Jeroboam II, and he was nothing more than a vassal of other nations.
As for my old Jew buddies’ second bumper sticker theme, “Repent, be patient, a Savior is coming.” well that’s the Good news of the gospels. Indeed, we do need to repent. Not because a savior is coming, but because a Savior came, just like they said he would. He was born in the little town of Bethlehem just like ole Micah predicted 700 hundred years before. He came and he fulfilled all the prophecies that Isaiah and all the others foretold.
He came! He came, and he brought the hope of justice. He came, and he gave comfort to the oppressed. He came, and he saw a world in need of instruction, in need of change, in need of a savior. He came, and he preached love and mercy, justice and righteousness. He came and he taught compassion for the “least of these.” He came, and he gave hope to a wicked world. He came, and he healed the sick. He came and he shed his blood for a sinful world. He came, and he conquered death and the world. And because he came there is hope for humanity. He came, and he promised to come again.
I want to tell my old Jew pals he came. I want to tell them: “He came and he saved a wretched old sinner like me! But I expect they already know that!”
More Steve Patterson: A day when Elisha spoke: Soul-stirring voices in the Delta.