Chicago. Brown Line. Clark and Lake, City Hall and the County Building. A man gets on my train. With a roar, he begins to preach.
He tells us he was perverse and sinful but Jesus saved him from the world. He tells us the devil is everywhere. He tells us to stop our lying and our fornicating. He suddenly departs one stop later, mid-sentence, at Merchandise Mart.
When I later broadcast the encounter on Facebook, one of my friends chimed in: “Wow! The American Prophet!” I have to admit I’m really hoping not.
But the phrase stuck. And the phrase, along with the image, came back to me when I heard last Sunday’s first reading:
In those days, the princes said to the king: “Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.” King Zedekiah answered: “He is in your power”; for the king could do nothing with them. And so they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Prince Malchiah, which was in the quarters of the guard, letting him down with ropes. There was no water in the cistern, only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud. (Jeremiah 38: 4-6, cf. Lectionary: 120)
The prophets are those who are mad. The prophets see things that we don’t see, that we think aren’t really there: the face of God, the approaching end, a world made new. They love too much. They love the wrong people. They climb over walls that say “keep out.” They don’t know when to shut up, or where. They do not make for family-friendly viewing. They stand outside of the consensus reality, where we have all agreed on what we must say and do, on what we can let ourselves feel and only so much, so that the trains keep running on time.
The prophets anger us because they disrupt the train schedule. They boggle our minds by asking why we must have trains in the first place. They shame us because they remind us of what could be if only we weren’t locked in by, in novelist Graham Greene’s phrase, a “failure of the imagination.”
Not only are the prophets mad, but they are apparently useless. The words of the prophets cannot be made into organizational strategic plans. They cannot increase market share or get any funding. They do not yield higher standardized test scores. They do not soothe the Magisterium into cooperation by finding safe precedent in encyclicals or canon law. They cannot become bipartisan bills, skillfully maneuvered through Congress by brokering and horse-trading.
Prophets do not have access to presidents or governors, to bishops or popes. Prophets have neither interest nor investment in the interlocking social structures that protect us, justify us, pay us, and congratulate us. When we want to know what their bullet-points are, who their electoral base is, how they can afford it, why they demand what has never been done before, the prophets have but one relentless and enraging answer: “Return to God. The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
We feel like slamming our heads against a wall. But that would hurt. So instead we pick up the prophets, Jeremiah and the rest, and throw them into wells.
And for this reason Jesus still weeps, as once he did when approaching Jerusalem, because even today we do not know the hour of our visitation.