For the next few weeks, I’m facilitating a study at my church on the book Jesus for President, by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. As I’ve been reading their description of the Biblical prophets, I’ve thought about the difference in doing good and being good.
As Claiborne and Haw note, “The prophets are weird. They set themselves apart from the normalcy of civilization and its pattern of destruction and war. Their vocation is to interrupt the status quo.” When you think of some of the things the prophets did, you realize they were less concerned with appearances than many of us who call ourselves “church folk” are.
Hosea married a prostitute. Isaiah walked around naked for three years. Ezekiel cooked over human dung, which violated Israel’s purity codes. They would not have been called “good” by the culture in which they lived. But they lived lives of obedience to God, in contrast to the “good people” who fit in by following “the rules.”
The prophets focused on doing good. They were in close communion with God, and they trusted God even when God called them to do what put them at odds with those in positions of power. Claiborne and Haw say, “It can embarrass us to read of their antics, but what they do is not nearly as embarrassing as the things we do, which their actions expose so we can see that another future is possible.”
We become desensitized to evil when evil promotes our “good” agenda. Rabbi Abraham Heschel says: “To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode, to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.” We rationalize all sorts of things when it serves our purposes to do so. Cheating in business can be excused as needed to take care of our family. Slandering another may be our way to preserve our reputation so we can continue to use our influence “for good.”
The prophets, ancient and contemporary, remind us that when pride, power and self-preservation become our gods, being good becomes more important than doing good, and whatever good we actually accomplish is not pleasing to God, who honors the powerless, not the prideful.