10/30/11 – 7 Billion, 150, and the Prophets – Micah 3:5-12, Matthew 23:1-12

The prophet Micah imagines a day when there are no prophets to speak to the people.  A day in  which prophecies cease; words of instruction and guidance from those who claim to have the inside track on God’s thoughts, fall silent.  The prophet Micah says, “Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray… ‘it shall be night for you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation.  The sun will go down upon the prophets and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame, they shall cover their lips, for there is no answer from God.’”  Micah sees a time when his fellow prophets join the ranks of the unemployed because they are given no more visions, no more insights, no more commentary, no more “thus saith the Lords” to deliver.  This, Micah assures his listeners, is an improvement.  This is the good news.

The problem was that the prophets of Micah’s time had used their position of leadership and power to seek their own gain.  This text accuses these prophets of crying “’Peace,’ when they have something to eat, but declar(ing) war against those who put nothing in their mouths.”  In other words, as long as the prophet had a full belly, he or she declared that everything was right and just in the world, but as soon as they felt a little bit of personal pain or a tinge of dissatisfaction with the status quo, they started drumming up support for a war to remedy the problem.

Better no prophet at all, than a false prophet.  Better no prophets than many false prophets all speaking out of their own self interest, sometimes even seeming to agree with each other, reinforcing a lie.

The situation highlights that the claims for what is just, what is right, what is needed, have always been multiple and conflicted.  Micah ends up getting his own book in the Bible and so, for us, his voice gets elevated above the others, but chances are at the time it was a whole lot less clear who was speaking for the Lord, and who was speaking for themselves; who was out to get a buck on a best seller, and who was lending their voice for the common good.  Micah has a beef to pick with his colleagues the prophets and from all we can tell, he was in the minority.  The cacophony of voices claiming to speak the truth, claiming to speak with divine authority, could easily have drown him out.

It can get confusing out there, in the multitude of voices, when one is looking for a word that is true.

How does a people find their way?

Speaking of a multitude of voices, tomorrow, October 31st, according to the United Nations, the global population will reach 7 billion people.  This is stunning considering that there were only 2 billion people on the planet in 85 years ago.  1804 was the first time there was ever 1 billion.  It took all of human history to get to a billion, then once we reached 5 billion it took only 12 years to reach 6 billion and 12 years to go from 6 to 7.  The rate of growth is expected to slow down some over the next decades, but most estimates still project that by 2050 there will be between 9 and 10 billion people.

I’ve been doing some reading recently about our foraging, hunter/gatherer ancestors, human history before 10,000 years ago.  The interest didn’t originally come from the reality of current population numbers, but maybe there has been some kind of subtle mental desire to get a better handle on the world by looking at simpler times.  In this reading I have encountered the concept of Dunbar’s number.  This number, proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, is a theory about the amount of stable social relationships that any one person can have at the same time.  Another way of looking at it is basically a number about how big a group of people can be and have everyone know everyone else.  Once the number is exceeded, it shifts all sorts of social dynamics, calls for some level of hierarchy, or at least more formalized leadership structure.

It is admittedly loose and flexible, but Dunbar’s number is 150, and apparently it has been researched as applying to tribes, small villages, Roman and modern armies, the size and organization of businesses; it has even been determined to be the splitting point for the highly communitarian Hutterite communities, our Anabaptist cousins.  After this number gets exceeded by too much, it’s extremely difficult to “hold all things in common” as the Hutterites seek to do in imitation of the practice of the early church as recorded in Acts.  There are also studies confirming that this number plays out in social networking relationships as well, so, no matter how many Facebook friends you have, you can’t realistically keep up with all of them.  I noticed recently that Facebook now let’s you designate whether a friend is a ‘close friend’ or an ‘acquaintance’, perhaps a nod to the fact of dunbar’s number, and an acknowledgement that status updates are not all created equal in each person’s social world.

Theories hold that most foraging societies, would have stayed within the bounds of this number and that our brains and social habits evolved to be pretty good at relating within this size of a group.  Knowing people and families builds social trust, increases accountability, and puts more of an emphasis on the common good rather than personal gain.  It’s easier to figure out what is just, what is right, what is needed for the individual and the group.  Such a group size calls for very little formal leadership and political structures.  Other dynamics of foraging culture kept human population in the millions, rather than billions, for hundreds of thousands of years.  Not until the advent of agriculture, settled societies, the surplus of food, did humans start regularly living in groups bigger than 150.  Our brains are still back in those small foraging circles of relationships, while we find ourselves embedded in more and more complex, more and more heavily populated bureaucratic societies.  We no longer live as communal foragers.  We are confused farmers, and like the ancient Israelites, we try and sort through the multitude of voices, to hear the words of the inspired prophet, giving her voice for how to live a sane, human, God-filled life.  Helping us find our way.

Jesus waltzes into the world of confused farmers, gets his hands in the dirt, and starts to teach us how to be human beings.  Teaches us that this mess we have made of things is already forgiven and that there is another way.  Shows us that the Christ Spirit resides in each one of us.  And calls into being a new community, made of both Jew and Gentile, original Israel and new Israel.  He doesn’t always have kind words to say to the leaders of his people.  Jesus embodies the same prophetic energy carried by Micah, and isn’t shy about naming abuses.  Jesus acknowledges that the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, which is to say, that they hold the honor and the duty of being the continuation of the prophetic tradition to their people; listening for God, teaching, instructing, interpreting.  But, Jesus laments, they are serving themselves rather than the people.  Eugene Peterson gives a contemporary flare to these words of Matthew 23 read by Karen.  “Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals.  They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help.  Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next.  They love to sit at the head of the table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’”  (The Message)

So where are the prophets?  Have they fallen away and have the visions gone dark as Micah imagined?  Are we a people without the prophetic voice to teach us how to find our way?

I saw an interesting cartoon picture recently which showed the new MLK memorial in Washington DC.  In the picture, King was absent from the memorial, with the silhouette of his body in the background, showing him walking away.  On the memorial was hung a sign: “Gone to occupy Wall Street.”  It brings up the consideration that maybe we don’t want a prophet.  Maybe it’s easier to celebrate our dead prophets for their work in the past than to allow them to be alive in the present and disturb the present order.  Keep MLK safely carved in stone.  Keep Jesus safely obscured on the pages of the Bible.  If things are going well for us, prophets don’t necessarily always work in our favor, annoyingly pointing out that things are not well for everyone.

Or maybe we don’t need any more prophets.  Because all that can be said has already been said.  Last week Dustin preached about the greatest commandments.  Of all there is to know, of all the laws and commandments, what is the most important?  Jesus answered, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and to love your neighbor has yourself.”  That’s all you need to know – as long as you get the added twist that everyone, all seven billion of them, is your neighbor.  And Micah himself had something to interject here.  He may have anticipated a lack of future prophetic voices, but he said, “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might.”  And Micah gave us the beautiful summary of prophetic teaching.  Micah 6:8 says: “God has told you, O human, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  That pretty much says it all.  What else is there for a prophet to say?

After Jesus chastised the failed prophets of his day, he gave a remarkable teaching.  He cautioned against any kind of title or position that set one person above the other people of the community.  He names rabbi, father, and instructor as examples of names that should not be used.  One might also wonder if ‘prophet’ would be included.  Jesus’ followers were not to use those kinds of titles for each other.  This is, by the way, one of those teachings of Jesus that we his followers have conveniently ignored.  But I wonder if there isn’t some wisdom in this that we in our post-foraging, and now post-farming, maybe even post-industrial culture could gain.  We who live way beyond the scope of our personal Dunbar circle, and have a tendency to elevate leaders above us whom we in turn either idolize or demonize.

Jesus’ teaching here is not to call anyone teacher, because we are all students.  And not to call anyone father, because we are all siblings, and the only one who fulfills that authoritative role is God.  So we are students of one another.  And we are siblings of one another.  And we are prophets to one another.  In these small circles of relationships we have, our 150, these small intersecting circles which bloom out and eventually include everyone; in this body which is our congregation, we listen to one another, we speak humbly, and we believe that each one is filled with the Spirit of God, which is the spirit of the prophets.

We appear to be living in a time not quite like the day Micah imagined when there are no more prophets, but more like the time of Micah, where there were many.  And our prophets speak to us through every form of media yet invented.  Speaking in hundreds of languages all throughout the world.

Out of the multitude of voices that are around us, and it is a multitude, false prophets, inspired prophets, and everything in between, we discern together what the Spirit is saying to us.  And we look to Jesus as the one who taught us how to be human and how the spiritual and the economic and the political mix and weave and intersect and give us glimpses of the Kingdom of God, which is already among us.