The axe is being laid to the root

I remember distinctly the first time I heard Robert Mugabe speak. It was March 1975, a time when different leaders of the nationalist movements were beating about the bush proposing various remedies. Mugabe spoke clearly and radically about the only solution that would settle the burning issue of the time. You could hear a pin drop. He had the total attention of everyone present.

We like clear solutions. What is painful in our present situation is that no one is providing a clear message of hope. We carry on – in the dark. The prophets of old shook their society with the clarity of their message and the earnestness with which they delivered it. ‘How long’ Elijah said, ‘do you mean to hobble first on one leg then on the other?’ (I Kings 18:21). Abraham Heschel, in The Prophets, describes their words not as reflections but as ‘onslaughts, scuttling illusions of false security, challenging evasions.’

The prophets saw things starkly. Either people returned to God or there would be disaster. Amos warns against those who say ‘we can buy up the weak for silver … but the earth will tremble for this’ (Amos 8:6-8). John the Baptist was part of this tradition and his words fit with those of the old prophets of Israel: ‘brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming retribution? … Even now the axe is being laid to the root of the trees’ (Matt 3:7-10).

The prophet is characteristi-cally a ‘sharp sword’ (Isaiah 49:2). Jesus spoke out too against hypocrites but when we think of his words perhaps our dominant impression is not of harsh judgement but of attractiveness and encourage-ment.

The very next chapter in John’s gospel, after the one cited about the Baptist, describes Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman.

Judging by what we know of the Pharisees they would have judged her harshly. But Jesus is the opposite; he encourages her and draws her to the ‘spring of water, welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14).

So which do you want to hear; sharp unsettling warnings of disaster or encouraging words of perseverance and hope? No doubt the answer is clear. But sometimes the old prophetic tradition of stark clarity can help us wake up and concentrate our minds on impounding calamity.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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