Everyone reveres the prophet after he’s dead. But in his own day the prophet is rejected, ridiculed, scorned, misquoted, misunderstood, vilified, and in some cases shot in the head.
Today is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States. In predictable Biblical tradition we have honored the prophet after he’s gone, and in short order have reduced the honor to an innocuous three-day weekend for federal employees and school children. In honor of Dr. King, Sears, Best Buy, WalMart, Kohls, Kmart, and Toys R Us all offer fantastic deals of up to 75% off!
Jesus railed against the powerful religious tendency to ignore the word of God when it is living and active, while building cold stone monuments to the word after the voice is silent. Jesus understood this dynamic well:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!” (Matthew 23: 29-31)
Even when Dr. King’s words are Googled and repeated in civic ceremonies, we listen to them with selective hearing and digest the sound bites like hors d’oeuvres at the reception afterward. But the words of the prophets were never meant to go down easy–even for those who agree with them.
Nearly every schoolchild can tell you Dr. King “had a dream,” but perhaps only one in ten can articulate that dream.
For example, when Dr. King declared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” we rally to the idea that no one should be judged by the color of their skin, but we gloss over the part of the dream where we are all judged by the content of our character. The prophet denounced one practice (racism) while reminding all of us that our character will be judged.
Perhaps we could honor Dr. King’s memory with a simple and sobering meditation today: will I hear all of God’s word–or only that portion that goes down easy? If we are willing to hear all of the word, the day will come when we can hew a stone of hope out of the mountain of despair.