Voices of Faith offers perspectives from religion columnists. This week’s question: Who is your favorite prophet?
Elijah returns to test us
Rabbi Mark H. Levin, Congregation Beth Torah, Overland Park, Kan.:
The best answer for any Jew ought to be Moses, as our religion is based on Mosaic legislation.
But for me, it’s Elijah.
Elijah never dies. Being taken up in the chariot (2 Kings 2:11) means in Jewish lore that he will reappear constantly on earth. Elijah attends every home Seder on Passover, shows up at ritual circumcisions and revisits constantly in everyday life to give advice on God’s intentions.
Elijah will herald the coming of the messiah and, in accordance with that role, often examines our observance of God’s commandments by appearing as a poor man and testing how we treat God’s image on earth.
Many stories in Jewish lore tell of how Elijah blessed or cursed a man, woman or family depending on how they treated the poor in their suffering, whether showing compassion or not.
For that reason, I often choose to think of strangers I encounter as being Elijah in disguise. The exasperatingly slow person counting out change in the fast lane at the grocery store; the homeless person who asks for money and tells me a story that is either a huge tragedy or an outright lie, placing the moral burden on me to respond; the rude person who expects kindliness in response: Each may well be Elijah testing whether I can live the life I preach. Elijah makes me a better man.
Hope from Jeremiah
The Rev. Betty Hanna Witherspoon, Ebenezer AME Church, Kansas City, Mo.:
This is difficult because the words and writings of the prophets are favorites for different reasons. Christmas and Easter worship are clothed in the beautiful messianic language of Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14) is central to our celebration of Jesus the Christ coming into the world as “God with us.”
Another reason for loving Isaiah is the promise of a deliverer; a savior is central to African-American prophetic preaching. Who can forget Martin Luther King’s proclamation from Isaiah that “every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill will be made low”? Such a message is central to a people who are awaiting justice.
Yet, I love Jeremiah’s dramatic presentation of God’s message. It gives me steel for my backbone when I would retreat: “If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5).
It is also Jeremiah who Jeremiah gives me fresh hope: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
These words allow me to preach hope under the worst conditions, for in the words of innumerable African-American preachers, “It is not over until God says it’s over.” The prophets have given me words on which to build a life.
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