The Bible is full of material which challenges simplistic interpretations and this is one of them. It is a tale of two prophets: “the prophet from Judah” delivers a true prophecy that was fulfilled with accuracy more than three centuries later. The “old prophet from Bethel” transmits a lie that trips up the prophet of Judah, and then delivers a judgment message from God himself because of the younger prophet’s disobedience. It is a most unsettling story — almost reading like a divine sting operation in which the Almighty seeks to trick a faithful man, and then gives him a harsher penalty than the evil king he was sent to correct. (see 1 Kings 13)
I’ve been thinking about this one a long time, and as I was preparing some remarks about “listening to God” it finally dawned on me that this story is like a theatrical piece or screenplay illustrating the fact that all of God’s spokesmen are flawed characters. Except for Jesus, everyone who has ever spoken for God has had deep, fatal flaws that deserve God’s judgment, and no pronouncement or claim from anyone who teaches the Word can be relied upon withhout careful checking. No wonder James warns that teachers will have a severer judgment.
The prophet of Judah was brave and true, confronting king Jeroboam, who had introduced idolatry to the 10-tribe kingdom of Israel. When God gave him the message he was to present to Jeroboam, He also instructed the prophet of Judah (I’ll call him PJ) to go home a different direction, and not to eat food or water before he got home. PJ passed the first test when Jeroboam asked him to stay and dine. He also demonstrated one of the hallmarks of a true man of God, in that moments after he condemned Jeroboam for the most serious types of sins, and the wicked king had actually commanded his soldiers to seize the prophet for punishment, PJ became an intercessor on Jeoboam’s behalf, praying to God to release Jeroboam’s withered hand after God had frozen it in position. What a merciful man he was… instead of laughing at the King’s predicament and walking away from his misfortune, he used his close relationship with God to gain a reprieve for Jeroboam as soon as the king showed the slightest hint of repentance.
The old prophet — I’ll call him OP, heard of these remarkable acts of virtue and followed PJ until he overtook him as he rested in the shade of a mighty oak. No doubt PJ was famished — that’s a long journey to take without food and water — and the old man extended kindness to PJ, offering him some refreshment and a place to rest. At first PJ remained loyal to the instructions God had given him, but then, when OP told him he was a prophet too, and that an angel of the Lord had told him that he should indeed come home for a meal with him, PJ succumbed to the temptation and went home with OP. While they dined, the word of the Lord came to the Old Prophet, that PJ would die away from his father’s house, and be unburied. Sure enough, a lion came and killed him on the way home. OP heard of it and made the journey to the site, becoming a witness to a bizarre scene in which the lion stood there by the corpse, not eating the man or his donkey. In sorrow OP took PJ’s corpse to Bethel, and put him in his own grave, where not many years later he joined him in death. Their bones were mingled in death, according to the account.
Most of the commentaries I have read on this strange tale draw from it the idea that God is extremely intolerant of even the slightest deviation from His word … that if we are unfaithful in the least little detail, God will judge us harshly.
Here’s my take. Every spokesman for God is flawed. God knows this. So God has arranged that while we live, we must be each accountable to Him for what we see and know. If we see and know something to be true, a word from God, we are accountable to Him and no one else for our faithfulness to that revealed principle. On the other hand, we will constantly coexist with other brothers and sisters who are also prophets of God. They will have things they see and know that call attention to other truths, other dimensions of God’s plans and dealings that we are unaware of. We need to test what they say against the word of God.
I can hear one school of thought right now, saying “The point is, we dare not depart from the truths we have learned — we must be faithful to God!” From this perspective, the post=protestant initiative is like the lie of the Old Prophet, theatening to lead the “orthodox” into judgment. But that’s not what I see going on here. As I see it, the real problem in the church today is not that the emergent church is questioning and contradicting the word of God (although that does occur in places) but that what has been accepted as the word of God — the systematic theology of orthodox Christianity — has within it elements that never were part of the word of God and have always needed to be reexamined. Looking back at history, there have always been dissenting voices, challenging this or that orthodox position. And since the 4th century, the way those voices has been dealt with has been both ecclesiastical and political violence. Today the monopoly of orthodoxy is being undone by the shear volume of dissent and the ease with which dissenters can now communicate.
By flipping the script, as Brian put it at the Revolution conference, we can start to get a more complex, but more productive view of this process. God is speaking through multiple voices, each of which are flawed and as Pope put it, partial evils that make up together a universal good.
All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see
All discord, harmony not understood,
All partial evil, universal good:
How will we find out what is true, whether it be in eschatology or in our current practice? By remaining kind and diligent in pursuing dialog, study, testing, and conversation. By avoiding what Pope called “pride, reasoning pride”, — by listening to each other and rigorously retesting what we thought the Bible said, we can do better than merely tolerating paradox — we can arrive at broader, more kind and inclusive truths.
The old prophet was used by God to expose the weakness in the prophet of Judah. That’s the hard pill to swallow. Both were faithful men, though both had flaws. OP could have been talked to by a lying angel, the way we are warned that Satan will speak to all God’s people — as an Angel of Light. So whether what he said was a malicious lie, a “white lie” or fib to get him to be sensible and eat some food, or a case of unfortunate gullibility by the Old Prophet (believing a lying angel), his words became the occasion of stumbling which exposed the weakness of the prophet from Judah. One man’s flaw exposed another man’s flaw — just as iron sharpens iron. And OP loved PJ — he was saddened to have to be the agency which taught him a very hard lesson.
OP was a stone of stumbling to PJ. And by turns each of us in a Christian community is a stone of stumbling to the others. The bitter fact of our life in Christ, even with our closest friends and co-workers, is that we trip each other up. We have flawed friends whose flaws bring out our weaknesses, and yet which reveal to us either by precept or example, our own areas of sin.
Viewed in that way, I think the story of the two flawed prophets is a beautiful and realistic story — in the best Hollywood traditions of complicated characters whose interplay creates drama, struggle, and eventual resolution. What is the resolution here? Not some sort of frightful judgment of an angry and legalistic God, but a warm and loving picture of two men who struggled to accomplish God’s word in their lives, were partially successful and partially failures, but whose bones ended up together in death, awaiting a resurrection together by the kind Judge of all.
The principle of kindness over judgment is what all of us must use to get our eschatalogy into line with God’s love and fairness. To me, that’s the main goal of the emergent conversation, and I appreciate the efforts of Brian McLaren, Jim Henderson, Donald Miller, Geeorge Barna, and others who are contributing to this dialog today.