AT THIS stage of the summer, university students have (mostly) passed exams, and graduated (DV), while families await the publication of school pupils’ exam results. So I wish the lectioneers had included v.30 in the Jeremiah reading: “I am against the prophets, says the LORD, who steal my words from one another.” Plagiarism and other exam cheating, we are told, is currently on the increase. Yet, even back in the sixth century BC, would-be prophets were pinching one another’s prophecies and passing them off as their own.
Why not put equivalent effort into listening to God? I recently watched a documentary about Jim Jones, the cult leader and mass murderer. His talent for communicating was extraordinary. His reputation was untainted by expensive tastes for bling or supercars. Did that mark him as a true prophet? The programme wondered whether, if he had died before the mass murder that cemented his evil reputation, he would have been celebrated as a visionary supporter of racial integration.
Nobody expects to mix the mass with mass murder. But this is where my imagination led me, prodded by Jeremiah’s warning about false prophets. Falsehood can consist of claiming to be what you are not, like the prophets who were not really prophets at all. Or it can call to mind students who put effort into deceiving which they could have expended on study. Latin has two forms of the same word to express deceit. Simulatio is pretending to be what you are not. Dissimulatio is pretending not to be what you are. The false prophets were both kinds of liar — like Jim Jones, who was more excited by the power than by the truth of Christianity.
In Hebrews, we glimpse another side to religious experience: the courageous faithful, who did not count the cost of their discipleship, or who reckoned it a price worth paying. The writer piles hero upon hero, one extraordinary example after another. Then he astonishes us with his conclusion: despite it all, they had to wait for us — us! — in order to obtain that perfection (“fulfilment” is a better translation) bestowed on us in Christ. We all win the prize together. This is the way of the gospel, not the way of the world. I point out to those who mock my football allegiance that, every season, 19 out of 20 Premier League teams “fail”.
The Gospel is every bit as demanding as the terrific (in both senses) texts that precede it. We have seen false prophets “weighed in the balance and found wanting” (see Daniel 5.27). We have seen the heroes of the Judaeo-Christian story having to wait until a time when we are ready. When we turn to the Gospel, there is not a comfortable word in sight; for Jesus issues a message that is frankly frightening.
He speaks of fire, and we recall the Lord’s saying that his word is like fire (with Jeremiah 23.29). He speaks of his own death as a form of rebirth — and we, the baptised, are obliged to confront the question what our baptism might cost us. Could it mean that our spiritual rebirth will lead to our physical death, as it did with Jesus? And the martyrs?
Jesus is equally fierce when it comes to prophecy. For him, foretelling the future seems as easy as predicting the weather. Prophesying is not astonishing people with the unimaginable, but perceiving what is plain to the eye of faith. This perception comes at a price: “What pressure I am under!” The weight of providence is crushing him.
Many an examination candidate could say that they feel the same. The only relief from such pressure comes from facing it, and facing it down. But not by lying, or cheating.
When the author of Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, he means to inspire us with the thought that the heroes of our faith are all about us, seen and unseen. But those famous words have a solemnity about them at least as powerful as the oath that witnesses swear (or affirm) in court, to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.
Our words and actions do not pass unscrutinised, and we should live our lives as if that cloud of witnesses is testifying to everything we do and are.