Kenyatta Gilbert: Pinocchio Prophecy

The story of Pinocchio is a fictional, allegorical tale about what it takes to become a real boy. In fulfilling the wish of his woodcarving father Gepetto, Pinocchio, the wooden marionette protagonist, is brought to life by a blue fairy, who appears waving her wand over the wooden puppet. She says, "Wake, Pinocchio! Skip and run! For your owner needs you!" Pinocchio blinks his eyes and raises his wooden arms, and says, "I can move! I'm a real boy!" But to this assertion the Blue Fairy soberly replies, "No. You have life, but to become a real boy and be of use to your maker, you must prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish."

The plot is uncomplicated. Pinocchio is tested by a series of encounters with unsavory characters that mean him no good. He's caught in a series of character maligning circumstances that put his integrity to the test. A memorable tale for sure, but the most remembered aspect of the storyline is that Pinocchio doesn't handle stress very well. For when under pressure, he dithers, exaggerates the truth, or flatly tells lies, and each time he tells a lie his nose grows. Unsurprisingly, the moral of the story is that if you tell lies, you will find yourself bereft of moral integrity. The same is true for persons in ministry leadership, who more often than not find themselves under serious pressure to perform, pressure to have the right answers, pressure to satisfy unrealistic expectations and meet bottom lines. The temptation to succeed at any cost is a real temptation.

To appease the masses and collect what is personally desired, even some of the most revered religious professionals will tell lies, bend the truth, and speak in God's name without the slightest regard for the people whom God has called them to serve.

We are sometimes seduced by popular religion, even blinded by our own theological assumptions about God, how God works, and whom we deem qualified or disqualified to receive of God's bounty when blessings are bestowed and forgiveness is meted out. But, if ministry is to matter, theological Pinocchioism must be avoided at all costs. For if we, who carry the gospel message and are consecrated to minister life-giving resources in good and not so good times, lie to God's people when the Lord has not spoken to us, we too, like Pinocchio, will find ourselves in morally and ethically deleterious situations.

Tension and conflict over who speaks the truth first erupt in the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah. Two stark yet contrasting realities emerge in chapter 28 that bring a feud to sobering punctuation. What is disclosed on the one hand is something very important about the nature and character of a prophet who has nothing in his life to hide from God. On the other hand, painted on these pages of scripture is the portrait of a false prophet who makes important and pretentious claims on the strength of worthless and unreliable reasons.

We find ourselves smack dab in the middle scene of a prophetic authority dispute. Jeremiah's strong criticism of the state-of-affairs in Jerusalem, King David's holy city, calls him into a battle that takes place before a great company of religious elites. His personal integrity comes under assault. Jeremiah uncovers the egregious behavior and practices of temple worshippers who've defamed the sacred altars, dreamed dreams, as most people do, but pass them off as message from God. Jeremiah scolds the temple prophets who've cooked up fantasies of wellbeing, affirming God's nearness to and presence within the Jerusalem establishment. He has a word for prophets brought to the stage, primed for the spotlight and yet unwilling to declare anything to God's people that would suggest that God requires righteousness, their loyalty, and obedience.

In this middle scene, mounting the preacher's desk, is a sixth century televangelist who's cooked up goodness from his own imaginings, announce: "your blessing is on the way...I see things getting better for you...this is your harvest time...your finances will turn around...your healing is a prayer and a penny away. Just name your desire. These are they who've earned the moniker pulpit Pinocchios. Religious leaders who buttress ideologies of exceptionalism absent humility, conflate nationalism with religious piety, who enthrone the gods of capitalism at the expense of the hurting. These are they who strengthen the hands of the powerful and promise job growth, the return of ethnic privilege, and the destruction of foes who don't like us very much. Pulpit Pinocchios pander to politicians who play on people's fears, who post wins without playbooks, who enjoy the spoils of success while others ride the bench. Pulpit Pinocchios prop up leaders who cry foul, who say that the system is rigged and the playing field is level in the same breath. "God is on our side," they say, "our God is a winner, your God is a loser." This is the company line.

These are they who bandage spiritual wounds that will not heal, declare whatever itching ears want to hear, yet are ultimately unable to deliver the bread of life. What one finds disclosed in the text is a visual, a visual of the cross-bearing life of the prophet in the context of fake news.

Moderns today conceive of the world on a compartmentalized basis - a carryover from the Enlightenment - dividing life activity into categories of sacred and secular. There was no such thing in the ancient Near East. In the world of the Hebrew prophet, religious and theological roles were just a critical as the social. And this is why, when we interpret how God acts in history, we must be careful and, at the very least, suspicious that our own assumptions about God do not become part of our own social manipulations, Machiavellian schemes, and unjust power arrangements.

Hananiah speaks in the Lord's house, in the presence of priests and people, and says "Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel. I have broken Babylon's stronghold, and within two years we'll kill the fatted calf and make merry. Yes, you've mismanaged your freedom, compromised with honesty, and diminished your integrity for avarice purposes, but trust me, you'll be back home in no time."

Jeremiah has a different word. Not canned, contrived, but cried out. He distinguishes himself from the popular credo - the dominant temple theology rooted in the royal tradition of David that by this time has become distorted. Hananiah embraced a Zionist tradition that claimed that God had made unconditional promises to the people of Judah without regard to their obedience. God says, "Absolutely not. I am not a genie in a bottle or a cosmic bellhop who responds to dinner bells and incessant ringing."

What makes the temple brand of theology flawed is its claim that the historical process is essentially closed and that God is the patron of the establishment, that God requires nothing of us.

What we have in the 23rd chapter is a forecast of the prophetic showdown that unfolds into a full-on spiritual fistfight in Chapter 28 between Hananiah, whose name ironically means "Yahweh is gracious," and the prophet Jeremiah who learned mercy on the potter's wheel. Two prophets saying different things. Two prophets holding different perspectives on what life is and isn't, thereby rendering two very different discernments of God. A God who fulfills our wishes and a God who supplies our witness. Hananiah stood in the presence of God prophesying a reality of God rooted in imagination, magical-thinking, pie-in-the-sky.

To the exiles taken away to Babylon, Hananiah said exile would not linger but rather be an interlude. Hananiah said, "Don't unpack. You'll be back sooner than you think." Naturally, this is the word anyone heading to exile wants to hear. Who does not want to hear a favorable report? But Jeremiah confronts the prophet's cooked-up imaginings. Hananiah says, "Don't unpack." Jeremiah says, "Unpack." "Hananiah," Jeremiah says, "the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie."

And so, because he delivers fake news, Hananiah found himself on the right side of the people, but on the wrong side of God. And because pulpit Pinnochios need to be on the right side of the people, the Hananiahs of the world outnumber the Jeremiahs. When all is said and done, scripture judges the prophet Hananiah a false prophet, not for swindling and racketeering but because his faith was false.

"False prophets plan to block people from seeing how life really is," says the Lord. "They decide and desire to use my name to support their causes, their agendas, their pet projects, to baptize the status quo, to prop up the powerful who oppress the weak, and we've not talked about this."

The pulpit Pinocchios of this world make a mockery of God and God's people. Pinocchio theology says succeed at any cost. Lie if you must, because the ends justify the means. Pinocchio theology dishonors the character and intentions of God - a God who makes covenant with God's people. Whose covenant comes with "if-then" clauses. God says to those who say thus says the Lord, "You are under oath."

Be reminded that the pew and pulpit must work together. We, God's gathered, guided, and sent, are always under oath. Ours is the vocation of truth telling. So, speak the truth - speak it to power - speak it in love. Christians of every stripe are under oath because God has established God's church to be light in dark places, near and far. God trusts you. God's people need you. We are covenant-bound people under oath because our society stands to profit if we are faithful.

"Wake, Pinocchio! Skip and run! For your owner needs you!" Pinocchio blinks his eyes and raises his arms, and says, "I can move! I'm a real boy!" "No," the Blue Fairy soberly replies, "You have life, but to become a real boy and be of use to your maker, you must prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish."

And this is the good news today. We have life to become what we hope to see. We have life in the carpenter's son - the Savior who gives life. New life. Life to become real. Life to make a difference as a citizen in the kingdom of God. Life to be of use to our maker. We have Jesus' Life.

Many are the temptations to digress from a disciplined approach in building a faithful ministry. None is perfect. We all have blood on our hands. But when under pressure, remember who God called you to be. It was Frederick Douglass who once said, "I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence."

Now, may God's Spirit accompany you, and may you know that God's grace goes ahead of you.

One last question. Now, do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, live the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?


Note: Because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Day1 production schedules, this is a rebroadcast from 2017.