This past Wednesday I was privileged to be one of the speakers for the Lenten series at Community ChristianChurch. Each week during Lent, a Christian minister and a Rabbi have spoken at a Wednesday luncheon about a particular Hebrew prophet. It was an honor to learn from Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz from Temple Kehilath Israel and to share the stage with him.
I love the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible and draw great inspiration from their visions of peace and commitment to justice for the poor. I am inspired by the fiery calls for justice in Amos (MLK often quoted from Amos such as in his “I Have a Dream Speech”) or Micah’s declaration that we are “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” or Isaiah’s visions of peace where “swords shall be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.” That being said, however, I prefer some prophets over others. When Community’s minister, Bob Hill, told me I would be speaking on the prophet Joel, I groaned. There’s not a whole lot in Joel which has ever inspired me. I’m glad to report, however, that I did gain appreciation for this writing by preparing to speak on it.
Part of the problem with interpreting this small prophetic book is that scholars—both ancient and modern—do not agree about much when it comes to Joel. The prophet has been dated to anywhere from the ninth to the second century B.C.E. There are several men named Joel in the Hebrew Bible and the writing has been variously associated with each of them. Some scholars think the writing is a carefully crafted piece of literature, while others think it is merely a collection of random oracles. Much of the writing concerns a devastating ecological disaster brought about by a plague of locusts, but scholars don’t even agree as to whether the locusts are literal insects or merely an elaborate metaphor for the plight of ancient Judah. This lack of coherent thought on the book is why I have usually skipped over it when talking about the prophets.
This week I read Joel again, and two things struck me: its emphasis upon communal lament and its emphasis upon all people receiving the life-giving Spirit of God. According to Joel, the proper response God’s people should make in the face of disaster is lamentation. Lamentations, as found in the book of Psalms, some prophets and the writing we call Lamentations, are expressions of grief, dismay and pain to God. They are shocking in their honesty—the Gospels portray Jesus quoting a lament Psalm on the cross when he cries out, “Why, God, have you forsaken me?” Laments offer no easy answers nor do they offer vapid platitudes (e.g. “everything happens for a reason,” “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” etc.). Instead they acknowledge pain and take time for reflection upon the experience. Laments are not acts of wallowing in pain or looking for sympathy, rather they are honest expressions of grief, doubt, anger and sadness.
I have been a part of a lot of Christian funerals. Too often, those grieving rush through the busyness of the funeral and assume that when it ends so does their grief. Others seem to expect the same and wonder why a person hasn’t “gotten over it” when someone continues to feel grief at a loved one’s death. The Jewish religion offers the ritual of “Sitting Shiva” where there is a proscribed time to mourn (seven days or longer in some cases) and rituals to carry out (e.g. tearing one’s clothes) for those grieving and expectations of care from their religious community. It seems that Christians could learn a lot from our Jewish brothers and sisters about what it means to face our grief honestly.
Many lamentations in the Hebrew Bible are for individuals, but Joel asks for communal lamentation. Furthermore, Joel declares that God does not want our struggles to provoke empty ritual but rather a true change in our consciousness. He declares, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” I couldn’t help but wonder what would have been different had our society taken time to live with its pain after 9-11 and reflect upon what response we should make in the face of it. Scenes of the president and political leaders praying before going to war in search of vengeance and expanding the American empire seem like just the sort of empty rituals Joel spoke against. Would our response to Katrina, Sandy, and Newtown be different if we took time to grieve with those directly affected? Would our response to gun violence in Kansas City be different if we took time to lament with the families of victims? As we observe the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War and stop to consider that combat continues not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan, what would our thoughts about these conflicts be if we chose to lament with the families of our soldiers killed, to lament with veterans wounded in mind and body, to lament with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan?
Joel also includes verses that were important to the early Christians. The second chapter of Acts describes the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first Christians at Pentecost enabling them to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in all the languages of the world. Peter quotes from Joel and says, “. . . this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. . . Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” Of course, “the Lord” Joel spoke of was Yahweh not Jesus Christ, but the point is similar—a day will come when people of all nations will experience the life-giving Spirit of God directly enabling them to see visions of reality the way God wishes reality to be. John Barton notes that this passage’s description of “all flesh” or “all people” receiving God’s visions may be the most universalistic passage in the Hebrew Bible.
Obviously, the world is still filled with suffering, violence and pain. The day Joel dreamed of and the first Christians hoped for has not come, at least in terms of all people sharing God’s vision for our world. Yet, I have a new understanding—thanks to Joel—regarding how we can get to the point of experiencing God’s vision. Joel seems to say that a necessary prerequisite for us experiencing a new vision for ourselves and our world can only come after we have taken time to honestly experience the pain and suffering of our world. This is not an easy thing to do in a society which emphasizes entertainment and comfort over thoughtful reflection about the problems of our planet. We are all too busy to take time for such reflection unless we are forced to do so—even then we hurry back to our overbooked schedules so we don’t have to think about such things too long.
Prior to this week, I had no idea the prophet Joel held such wisdom.
Grace and Peace,