Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 1:21-31) transports me to the oldest city in Germany, Trier, where in 340 CE a swarm of bees settled on the face of a newborn named Ambrose as he lay in his cradle. The bees left a drop of honey on the infant’s face, which his father interpreted as a sign that he would grow to be eloquent and honey-tongued. The honey-drippers did prove prophetic, with Ambrose rising to fame as Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. The eloquence of his sermons was enough to convert another future saint and bishop, Augustine, to the faith. Ambrose was a key figure in this early stage of Christian history, as the church was engaged in theological battles against the Arians, who questioned the role of Jesus in the Trinity. At the same time, the church was flexing its muscles as it grew into its new role as the official faith of the Roman empire. I think the contradiction and irony of a Jesus-centered imperial religion was lost on the early church fathers. The 300 year old tides of persecution reversed under Ambrose, as the same empire that had been feeding followers of the Prince of Peace to the lions now waged a violent holy war against heretics and pagans. Add to that Ambrose’s deep concern for the poor alongside his vicious anti-semitism, and you can see what a mixed bag the state of the church was at this time. The honey-tongued bishop said it best, when he defined the church as a chaste whore, because many lovers come to her for the delights of love, but without the contamination of blame.
The prophet Isaiah didn’t have bees flying in to drip honey on his tongue, but he had experienced seraphim flying in and touching a hot coal to his lips, leading him to become one of the most eloquent of the prophets. He, like Ambrose, lived in an age where the old time religion of the covenant community had become imperial in nature, and was engaged in practices that contradicted the central tenets of their faith. The silver of love had become tarnished, the wine of joy and justice had been watered down. Righteousness had turned violent; bribery and greed and theft had corrupted the economy, and the poor had been left to fend for themselves. Isaiah summed it up – the faithful city had become a whore. Not a chaste whore, as Ambrose imagined. Just a whore. A sell-out. A symbol of exploitation. It’s interesting to read Isaiah’s prescription for a return to chastity and faithfulness – he seems to be arguing for an end to the imperial monarchy, and a return to the time of the judges. Smelting away the dross meant taking away the concentration of power and wealth; removing the alloy meant returning to that era of decentralized and distributed power they had enjoyed in the Jubilee seasons of Joshua and Samson and Deborah and Samuel. It wasn’t a perfect time; the people were still prone to forget and fail at their end of the covenant bargain. But the prophet saw something preferable in that system, over the imperial system. Perhaps he was longing for a time of chaste whoredom.
The more things change. . . It doesn’t seem to me that the faith community is all that different now than it was in the time of Isaiah or in the time of Ambrose. It is a mixed bag. The church preaches good news and ministers to suffering people, and at the same time demands the privileges of imperial power and concentrated wealth. The church promotes peace and supports war. And the prophetic voice, as I hear it, calls us to remember and rebuild those ways of being faithful that are less imperial, less prone to violence and greed, those systems that are more distributive and decentralized. Times like the first three hundred years of church history when the Way of Jesus really was affirmed and lived out. Times like the formation of the Anabaptist radical reformation, when peace and justice really were central to the faith community. It’s hard to hear those voices when we’re in the middle of an exploitive empire that prostitutes itself for the pimp of the profit motive. But the call is there. Sometimes it comes in a song: You can’t stop us on the road to freedom, You can’t keep us ’cause our eyes can see, . . She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey, She’s an angel of the first degree, She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey, Just like honey from the bee.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.