Prophet, Go Home!

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

I am often fascinated by people who are so full of life and energy and enthusiasm that they give new meaning to words like inspiration and passion and determination and conviction.  They are so focused and positive and motivated, it’s infective.  I am fascinated because they ooze life and energy and enthusiasm out of every pore it seems.  They have great reasons to get up in the morning, great reasons to courageously face their daily challenges like commuter traffic and difficult people, and criticism and discouragement and a general lack of appreciation.  But they report a higher degree of job satisfaction than most, convinced they in fact make a difference in the lives of those they meet, that they contribute to success in their field of expertise, and that they are better people for all their trouble.  So they forge ahead steadily into battle and danger and opposition.  Yet not all passionate, energetic and enthusiastic people are automatically effective.  Sometimes they do more harm than good because they are unable to share what inspires them nor the reason for their enthusiasm.  I once had a Moral Theology professor in graduate school who completely deflated my desire to get a degree in Moral Theology because he taught the subject like he was teaching Calculus to idiots, except it became clear early on he lacked basic communication skills.  He may have been proficient in his subject matter (after all, he was hired by the college administration), but that didn’t come across at all.  Or maybe we students were just more cynical as a group, so we weren’t at all receptive.  And it isn’t always easy for teachers to motivate and inspire us to catch what motivates and inspires them.

Take St. Paul for instance.  That reading from his first letter to the Corinthians, addressed to an assembly similar to ours here, may not have convinced anyone of the merits of celibacy who were not already motivated and inspired to embrace it with enthusiasm.  But we can tell by his determination and conviction in writing about it, that he wanted to set his listeners on fire!  No big deal.  We can look at his message and tell ourselves it may have been appropriate in another time and place, but will not be an easy sell in this present age.  I know what he was talking about, but I am already sold on the idea.  And I don’t have nearly the passion he had, so I’m not even going to try.

Instead, when Moses spoke to his listeners, he clearly placed the responsibility on God to find someone who would share his message with conviction and energy and passion.  In every age, he has sent prophets to his people to speak his word, to tell them of his great mercy and compassion, to draw them closer to himself, to move them to thankfulness so in turn they are compelled to serve their neighbor in need, to inspire them to transform society, to give them hope in the face of present challenges that they more eagerly work to build a future of promise.  Think of the prophets whom God has sent, from Moses and Jeremiah, to Daniel and John the Baptist.  Think of the prophets through the history of the church who proclaimed truth in the face of power, who did not shrink from persecution, who burned bright in the dark night of selfishness and sin – among them the martyrs Peter and Paul, Stephen, Perpetua and Felicity, Thomas Becket and Joan of Arc, Thomas More and John Fischer.  They were on fire with God’s message in the face of hostility and indifference.  And closer to us in history, there were the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, the peace activists and proponents of non-violence Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the defender of the poor Archbishop Oscar Romero, the advocate of the voiceless Dorothy Day, and the apostle of the slums Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

A couple of things I notice looking at this illustrious group.  First, they belong to an exclusive club that is not easy to join, partly because no one ever sets out to join it.  But we look upon them with great respect and admiration for their courage and for the mighty hand of God that employed them in the work of transforming the world.  They are also all dead, and most not by natural causes.  We might look upon them with great respect and admiration, but the reasons we respect and admire them today are often the reasons they were cut down in their prime by the people of their day and age.  In short, we generally do not like prophets, especially those who are on the job in our present time.  The prophets of ages past we respect and admire because they are no longer around to get under our skin.  So our ancestors ignored them and persecuted them and silenced them.  And later, we built monuments to honor them.  The ones who are here now are often annoying and abrasive and relentless in their efforts to drive us off the edge.  They speak of things we do not want to hear, mostly because they point out to us how we have behaved poorly, how we have not lived up to our own noble calling, how we have disappointed our God and the heroes we admire.  They tell us to reform our lives now and make better decisions.  They stick their noses in our business and are not afraid to tell us to our face how we have lost our way, how we are drifting away from God and the values of the gospel, how we need to bring about a drastic change in the direction of our lives.  We would much rather a bright and sunny report, an optimistic outlook and a hearty pat on the back.  But the reason they are annoying and abrasive, and that we are not always receptive to their message is that they call us out of our comfort zones to live more radically the gospel we say we profess.  There is an urgency in their voice, that we not waste time and effort realizing the fulfillment of God’s kingdom in our midst, that we act more decisively to remove the obstacles on the road to holiness and authentic Christian discipleship, that we burn with greater zeal to serve God and our neighbor, and make the world a better place for those who come after us.

Jesus’ listeners in the gospel reading were amazed at how he spoke with authority, how even the unclean spirits obeyed him.  But we know how in the end he did not fare any better than the prophets who came before him nor the messengers God sent after him.  God will not tire to send us prophets to announce his message of mercy and compassion, to draw us closer to himself, to move us to thankfulness so in turn we are compelled to serve our neighbor in need, to inspire us to transform society, to give us hope in the face of present challenges that we more eagerly work to build a future of promise.  But when will we even begin to listen to the prophets whom God sends us?  When will be heed their message and reform our lives, and live more consciously the dignity of our baptism?  It’s not that God isn’t doing his job sending us prophets.  It’s that we don’t like the prophets he sends us.  We prefer them to be mild-mannered and diplomatic, well-dressed and well-behaved.  Then we can more easily ignore them.