I heard something this evening that started me thinking about the important role of the prophet in Christianity. Before I explore this a bit, let me clarify that I'm not talking about the Nostradamus kind of prophet whose main role is to try and predict future events. I'm talking about the kind of prophets that are known in the Hebrew Scriptures, who have at least 2 distinct roles:
Firstly, they call the people to repentance. The prophets are the self-critical flank of religion. They refuse to get so caught up in authority, tradition and dogma that they lose any perspective on what we might have done wrong or where we may be going astray. Repentance is important to both individuals and communities. All too often we can be reluctant to admit or acknowledge our mistakes and we must do so if we are to be serious about living in a better world.
Secondly, prophets speak truth to power. The prophet is the voice of justice that is unafraid of negative repercussions. Of course, this often ends badly for the prophets (including Jesus) but it is not a fate that they pursue unwittingly. Prophets are not self-righteous, but rather are carried forward by a cause much larger than themselves.
It seems to me that there's also something important about the actions of a prophet. Prophets don't have to lead perfect lives (many of them have had obvious human flaws) but they do need to reflect something more than strong words.