Prophetic Paradigm: Means

Vision and intention are expressed through means.  John Wesley called this ‘practical divinity’–the social holiness (works of mercy) which flows from personal holiness (works of piety).  The prophets turned their intentions into concrete practices, particularly through the  re-establishment of covenant, the re-activating of neighborliness, and the restoring of sabbath. 

Covenant began well, but it experienced cycles when it was misinterpreted and used to advance personal and selfish ends.  We see this even during the time
of Moses (e.g. the golden-calf incident), but also in the monarchial period, leading to brokenness, division, and exile.

The prophets arose to call people back to covenant as God originally intended it.  Brueggemann calls this the creation of an alternative consciousness that leads to the creation of alternative community–‘alternative’ referring to life that is anti-imperial. [1] Covenant embraced creates a new kind person and community, given to what Brueggemann calls “othering”–essentially meaning living in relation to the two great commandments: love of God and neighbor. [2]

Covenant gives rise to the second means used by the prophets: the re-activation of neighborliness. [3]  It begins in what Jean Vanier calls our willingness to encounter the “other.” This requires a number of actions: letting go of power, recognizing our radical equality with everyone, listening, celebrating.and learning from our differences, offering peace, experiencing reconciliation, and realizing change. [4]

Richard Foster has called this “one anothering” (gleaned from the biblical passages where “one another” occurs), and Richard Rohr refers to it as “oneing” (a term originally used by Juliana of Norwich).  Along with Brueggemann, they recognize that this kind of neighborliness cuts against the grain of egotism and ethnocentrism–but it is the way of God.

For covenant to be re-established and neighborliness to be re-activated, the prophets used a third means: the restoration of sabbath.  Recognizing Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic book,  Brueggeman writes about sabbath as a way of life that says “No” to the unrelenting pressures of “Now.”  Resistance, he notes, paradoxically provides rest from the things that drain and discourage us: anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and  multi-tasking–all of which are expressions of covetousness. [5]

For Brueggemann, sabbath is the core resistance to empire.  Through worship we see the God of hesed/agapé, Who gives us the alternative vision, evokes the alternative consciousness, and creates the alternative community.  And within the context of worship, the Eucharist is the means of grace which feeds us for the task of transformation and the ministry of reconciliation.

At its core, sabbath is the recovery of life (essentially defined as love–hesed and agapé) graciously offered to us by God, Who is Love.  We respond to love by fostering a disposition of the heart that sees rest as a virtue, rhythm (working/ceasing), as a pattern, and time as a gift rather than a commodity to be consumed.  From that disposition, we find happiness, wisdom, and we consecrate ourselves to be life givers to others. [6]

As I have read about the means of covenant, neighborliness, and sabbath, I have been awakened from the illusion that there was a “good old days” sometime in the past.  The prophets show us that the problem is not the period of time in which we live, but rather the mindset we have no matter when we live. This is one reason why Brueggemann believes the prophetic task is needed as much now as ever.  Later in this series, we will glean insights from him about engaging in the prophetic task today.

[1] This theme recurs so often in Brueggemann’s writings it cannot be linked to a single reference, but his book, A Social Reading of the Old Testament, Chapters 2 & 3 (Augsburg Fortress, 1994) is a good place to start.

[2] Brueggemann describes this in detail in his book, The Covenanted Self (Augsburg Fortress, 1999).

[3] Brueggemann writes about this throughout his books.  A good overview is found in the book he co-authored with Peter Block and John McKnight, An Other Kingdom (Wiley & Sons, 2016)

[4] Jean Vanier, Encountering the Other (Paulist Press, 2005).

[5] Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance (Westminster John Knox, 2014).  Heschel’s classic, Sabbath (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1951) has provided Brueggemann and many others a foundational reference point for understanding and practicing sabbath as both a day (observance) and way of life–both rooted in the nature of God (Genesis 2:2).

[6] Wayne Muller explores these things in detail in his book, Sabbath (Bantam Books, 1999).

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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