Ezekiel 2 (NRSV). He said to me: O mortal,[a] stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. 2 And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. 3 He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation[b] of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. 4 The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God.” 5 Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.
When we were discussing the lectionary readings for Sunday in our midweek Zoom session, I kept nodding my head — partly in agreement and partly because I needed to catch up on my sleep. We were going over the passage in Mark where Jesus is rejected in Nazareth and commissions his disciples to go out two by two and proclaim “that all should repent.” Good stuff, and it keeps the plot moving along, but I’ve heard it before. Then, abbout halfway through the session, we turned to the Old Testament reading from the Book of Ezekiel, and I sat right up.
Not that I hadn’t heard it before. (At least I think I have — I really need to read more of the Old Testament.) But this talk of an impudent, stubborn, rebellious house of Israel, that I can relate to! It sounds like my house, and a couple of other houses I can think of.
I don’t know much about Ezekiel. About all I do know is he saw de wheel, way up in the middle of the air. And there’s some wonderful poetry about dry bones — “can these bones live?” — so I was reasonably certain he was a prophet at the time of the Babylonian exile. But that’s about the extent of it.
Was he in Babylon? I asked. “Yes.”
Well, that certainly helped — if you’ve listened to enough reggae music, you know darn well who Babylon is.
We’re Babylon. Western culture, the white European culture that kidnapped African people and brought them to Jamaica, to America, we’re Babylon. Even as a retired English teacher who loves Bob Marley and votes the straight Democratic ticket, I’m complicit. So when the Melodians, a reggae group of the early 1970s, sing of the Rivers of Babylon, I wince:
How can we sing King Alpha song
In a strange land?
‘Cause the wicked carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha song
In a strange land?
Some of this may require translation. In the Jamaican Rastafarian faith, a King Alpha song is a song of Haile Selassie, variously seen as a manifestation of Jah, of God, or as a symbol, according to the Wikipedia page on Rastafari, of a believer’s “positive affirmation of Africa as a source of spiritual and cultural heritage.” And some of it requires no explanation. Who are the wicked who require a song? Who are we? I listen to reggae. Am I Babylon?
Another question: Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of the Melodians wrote the original version of “By the Rivers of Babylon.” They were Rastas. Were they prophets?
According to the Wikipedia page on “By the Rivers of Babylon,” Dowe’s and McNaughton’s song was initially banned in 1970 by the Jamaican government because its overtly Rastafari lyrics were considered subversive. The ban was soon lifted, partly because “Rivers of Babylon” quotes scripture, and in three weeks the was number one on the Jamaican charts.
Prophets, we were reminded in our midweek Zoom session on the gospel reading for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, are without honor in their own country. And they don’t always fare very well elsewhere. In 1978 the Melodians’ song was covered — with the Rasta references edited out — by what I will charitably describe as a glitzy European reggae-pop-disco band called Boney-M. Their cover was one of the all-time best selling singles in the UK, made the charts worldwide and even peaked at No. 30 on the pop charts in the US. Are they prophets? Who, exactly, is a prophet?
Ezekiel hears a voice, a spirit that enters into him, sets him up on his feet and commands, “you shall say to [the Israelites in Babylon], ‘Thus says the Lord God’.” Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.
Well, that’s what prophets do. Thus says the Lord God. Is it worthy of notice here that the Melodians, based their lyrics on the Old Testament? Psalm 37, to be exact: By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. The Wikipedia page notes that very few pop songs, with exceptions like “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by Pete Seeger and the Byrds, have biblical lyrics. It also notes:
Brent Dowe, the lead singer of the Melodians, told [the ethnomusicologist and reggae expert] Kenneth Bilby that he had adapted Psalm 137 to the new reggae style because he wanted to increase the public’s consciousness of the growing Rastafarian movement and its calls for black liberation and social justice.
How shall we know a prophet has been among us?
In Sunday’s gospel reading from Mark, the one I nodded my head through during the bible study session on Zoom, Jesus returns to Nazareth after his preaching and several miraculous healings have attracted great crowds down by the Sea of Galilee. But when he preaches in his hometown synagogue, his old friends and neighbors take offense (or stumble, according to the New Revised Standard Version). The story goes like this:
He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary[a] and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense[b] at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
With that, he commissions the disciples to go out among the villages, two by two, healing and casting out unclean spirits. “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you,” he adds, “as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”
While the order of events is a little different in each of the gospels, I think it’s significant that all four — plus the extra-canonical Gospel of Thomas — record Jesus’ saying that a prophet is without honor in his home. How shall we know a prophet has been among us?
In fact, the Jesus Seminar’s red-letter edition, which color-codes the sayings of Jesus according to its estimation of their authenticity, prints this one in pink, which means they believe it is substantially accurate, or as they put it in the vernacular, “Sure sounds like Jesus.” The earliest form, they believe, is found in a late second-century fragment of Thomas known as the Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1 (POxy1 for short): “A prophet is not well received in the prophet’s home town.”
There are all kinds of scholarly glosses on why hometown prophets might not be honored, and what it might tell us about the nascent Jesus movement’s relationship with Judaism in the first century CE, but I think it’s just human nature.
I’m no prophet, but when I was a “Road Scholar” for the Illinois Humanities Council speakers’ bureau, I gave talks on fiddle tunes and camp meeting spirituals from Galena, across the Mississippi from Dubuque, Iowa, to Harrisburg and way down in Shawneetown on the Ohio, and back to the suburbs of Chicago. But never once in Springfield. The closest I came was in Taylorville, 27 miles away on a two-lane blacktop. And I wasn’t even preaching repentance, sackcloth and ashes.
So I think it’s only natural that the historical Jesus found a tough audience back in Nazareth.
But so did Ezekiel in Babylon. And Babylon is always with us.
Curious to know more about Ezekiel, I checked Wikipedia (I always check Wikipedia). And I learned the Book of Ezekiel records six visions of the prophet who flourished in the Babylonian exile around 575 BCE, including the wheel and the dry bones; his prophecy that Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed when the spirit of God leaves “because of the abominations practiced there”; and his promise that a remnant of righteous believers would return to Israel. “The theology of Ezekiel is notable for its contribution to the emerging notion of individual responsibility to God,” quoth Wikipedia. Righteous stuff. Heavy stuff. Enough to get you run out of town.
So where, in the lectionary readings for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost in the year 2021 CE, is the good news for me? I’m not a prophet, and I can’t pretend to be. Nor am I a Rastafarian; if anything, I enjoy the fruits of empire and that makes me complicit in the sins of our Babylon. How, then, will I know when prophets walk among us?
If nothing else, the readings tell me I’d better keep listening.
Citation. Robert W. Funk, The Gospel of Mark: Red Letter Edition (Sonoma, California: Polebridge Press, 1991), 23, 110-114.
[Revised and published, belatedly, July 8]