The Prophetic Imagination – Criticism and Pathos in Jesus of Nazareth

This week we are reading through Chapter 5 “Criticism and Pathos in Jesus of Nazareth” and Chapter 6 “Energizing and Amazement in Jesus of Nazareth” of Dr. Walter Brueggemann’s book The Prophetic Imagination. In these chapters, Brueggemann walks us through how Jesus demonstrates the prophetic imagination, and how we as followers of Jesus can do the same. This email is available online.

Jesus as a Prophet:

I hope that all of us could write a chapter on how Jesus (in his life, death, and teachings), criticizes the existing social order of royal consciousness and its oppressive social, governmental, and religious policies. Brueggemann is quick to point out that Jesus cannot be understood as simply a prophet, but the prophetic idiom is a helpful means of fully understanding who Jesus is.

Jesus’ Birth:

First, we can see Jesus’ birth stories as the start of his prophetic ministry. In Matthew, we read of the destructive rage of a dying order in Herod the Great and the prophetic grieving of those who suffered therefrom. Matt. 2:16-23. In Luke, we see representations of two oppressed classes joyfully celebrating the coming of Jesus. We have shepherds who are representative of the socio-economically marginalized and we have the women of Mary and Elizabeth. The Christ-child comes to those on the margins of society, not the rich, powerful, and well-connected.

 Announcement of the Kingdom:

Brueggemann reminds us that at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus proclaims that he has come “to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Luke 4:18 quoting Isa. 61:1. Brueggmann says that whenever there are oppressed people, there are those who are the oppressors. Brueggemann discusses seven areas that Jesus’s life and ministry that demonstrate his prophetic proclamation of liberty.

  • Sabbath: Jesus undermines the Sabbath (and the Law) as a tool of oppression whereby the religious elites use the rules to undermine healing and justice. Mark 2:23-3:6. “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” Mark 2:27.

  • Table Fellowship: Jesus violated the social norms of the royal consciousness by sharing meals with social outcasts whom the religious authorities deemed unacceptable, unclean, and unworthy. Mark 2:23-28.

  • Healings/Exorcisms: Within Jesus’s Healings and Exorcisms, we see him physically engaging with and touching those with illness, loss, torment, and possession. In these actions, Jesus is crossing hard boundaries that placed these types of people outside of polite society.

  • Women: If it is the Woman at the Well (John 4), the Sinful Woman (Luke 7:36-50), or the Women who followed Jesus all the way to the empty tomb, his association with women not of his family would have been scandalous. (Not unlike Arab countries today.) Jesus’s prophetic proclamation was imaginatively inclusive.

  • Taxes/Debt: The crushing debt of the poor was a commonplace of attack throughout the Old Testament. See, e.g., Lev. 25:8-55, Ps. 72, Amos 2:6-8. Particularly in Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus’ overwhelming concern for the poor. Lk. 6:20-26, Lk. 16:19-31. If you have time today, read this article from David Bently Hart where he argues that the Lord’s Prayer is explicitly a prayer for “adequate nourishment, debt relief, avoidance of arraignment before the courts, and rescue from the depredations of powerful but unprincipled men.”

  • Temple: Jesus directly confronts the Temple – the center of religious royal consciousness and religious oppression. The prophets had done this before him as well. Isa. 1:11, Jer. 7:21-26, Amos 5:21-24. Jesus physically assaults the Temple and its oppressive system of sacrifice. John 2:13-22. He also foretells of its complete destruction. Mark 13:2.


We also see Jesus’s prophetic criticism in his “compassion.” As Brueggemann writes “Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.” p.88. Jesus’s compassion is not simply an emotional attachment to the oppressed but serves as a public criticism of the wider society that is numb and unreactive to their condition. We see Jesus’s compassion and its prophetic critique most clearly in the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son where one of the characters would simply be left for dead by the prevailing societal consciousness.  


It is Jesus’s crucifixion that is his decisive criticism of the royal consciousness that must have order. Jesus was not killed by the rabble but by the religious and political authorities of the day. The “good guys” of religious devotion and law and order murdered Christ.

We also see this critique in the necessity of Jesus’s death. As Robert Capon wrote “Jesus is preoccupied with the notion that the work of the Messiah will be accomplished not by winning but by losing. And the losers who will accompany him into his Kingdom are the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead.” Death is the fundamental critique of the royal consciousness. pp.42-43. But just as we cannot have Second Isaiah’s comfort with Jeremiah’s laments, so we cannot have Easter without the Crucifixion. Death is both the critique of the existing order and the gateway to something new.

Dinner is at 6. The menu is St. Patrick’s Day. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Luke 4:18-19 quoting Isa. 61:1-2

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *