Prophets: Love ’em & Hate ’em

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Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

No child dreams of becoming a prophet someday. No parent ever says they’d love for their son or daughter to grow up to be one. Spouses of prophets will not claim the honor. Children of prophets will not follow in their footsteps, and do not like to speak of it with their friends or their therapists. Career assessment tests and job search engines never mention it as an option. High school guidance counselors never invite students to consider it as a possibility. Academic advisors never steer anyone to it with hopes of great personal satisfaction or employment potential. No academic institution confers any such degree, no process exits to acquire certification, no continuing education program to keep updated on new research and popular trends. Being a prophet is not a line of work anyone in their right mind would pick as a first, a second, or a third career choice. No one is in it for either the money or the hours. It contributes little if any to a healthy family life. It affords no time for social interaction, travel, or leisure. No one goes out to hire a prophet. There are no such listings in the want ads or in the phone book. No temp agency has ever sent anyone to a gig as a prophet. No one ever puts it in their resume or on their business cards. There are no do-it-yourself starter kits, no incentives to entice job seekers, no stock options, and no advancement track. They get no days off, no vacation, no sick leave, and no severance package. There are no annual industry conventions, and no hotline for advice or support. Prophets live very stressful lifestyles, and no one really retires. And while death on the job is not guaranteed, it is quite common, and they have never been known to publish their own memoirs.

Throughout Israel’s history prophets were known to speak on God’s behalf, calling the people of God to faithfulness when they strayed, reminding them of the future consequences of their present actions. And since prophets were eventually recognized as bearers of God’s will, there arose a structure of prophets who served the people’s leaders, who basically proclaimed the will of the king or high priest, but made it look like the will of God. “They could always be counted on to deliver the party line; [and] rarely the will of God.” (Roger Vermalen Karban, Celebration Publications, August 2013, 20th Sunday.)

True, False Road Sign

Eventually, people had trouble distinguishing the true prophets from the false since they all claimed to speak God’s will. Over time they were able to detect certain characteristics of true prophets. (1) A prophet who serves as a “true conscience of the people will always take us back to the beginnings of our faith. (2) He or she can never profit from prophecy. (3) On the contrary, the authentic mouthpiece of God will always suffer for engaging in such a ministry. (4) And those who carry out their words will also suffer. (5) Finally, when pressed, most people can tell the difference between the real prophets and the fakes, but because of the suffering aspects attached to following real prophets, they [will be reluctant] to acknowledge them.” One of the commentaries I read added just one more characteristic which comes from one of the author’s scripture professors. He says “authentic prophets always confuse people.” (ibid.)

Prophets will tend to make us uncomfortable for many reasons. They don’t have a lot of friends because they like to tell the truth. And even among friends, telling the truth can be risky. They challenge us to a much higher standard of faithfulness, even when we think we’re doing just fine. They are seldom concerned whether or not people agree with what they have to say. But somehow they must get their message across. I heard once that if you’re a prophet, and people generally like you, you’re doing it wrong.

Not only will prophets say things to challenge us, they will also live in a manner that sets themselves apart, often making the rest of us look bad. So we don’t usually want to hang out with them. It’s not that they’re not aware they can sometimes be lightning rods; it’s that they don’t care. They are motivated by much nobler objectives. They have loftier goals to achieve. And they take their marching orders very seriously.

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The prophet Jeremiah is unarguably one of the most high-profile characters in the history of Israel. He is today widely regarded a true prophet who spoke God’s will with unwavering conviction. But he paid a steep price for it. The passage we read is just one example of the poor treatment he received because his words were often disturbing. Persecution and suffering were very much a part of his life, and those who tried to live what he taught did not fare much better. And from the Hebrew scriptures we detect a pattern that carried well into the first 300 years of Christianity. We know the Lord Jesus suffered very much the same fate, and many of his followers after him. But his words in today’s gospel to his own disciples and to the leaders of his people leave little room for misinterpretation. He wants to set the earth on fire! He wants to bring division, and apparently not peace and harmony, not sunshine and unicorns. He did this in a culture that valued close family ties. So the risk of division between family members was less than attractive to anyone. Yet perhaps he wasn’t necessarily advocating that a true believer should wave their faith in other people’s faces to bring about this division. I bet waving anything is anyone’s face could produce as much irritation and violent reaction.

Then the letter to the Hebrews reminds us what suffering Jesus embraced for our sake, that God might give us an inheritance far beyond this lowly existence. He endured the cross and despised its shame. We should be willing to purge ourselves of sin and persevere in faith. It won’t be easy; and for some blood will be shed. But do not grow weary; do not lose heart. We, too, are destined for glory.

So heed the prophet whose message challenges us to grow in God’s grace, whose example invites us to be more like Jesus Christ. If our discipleship is authentic, we will be on fire with compassion and thankfulness and loving service. We will set the earth on fire as Jesus desired, because others who see our faithful witness will have to choose. If they heed the Spirit’s invitation to faith, they will turn from sin and be reconciled to God. If they reject it, they might simply ignore the invitation. If it causes discomfort, they might seek to silence or destroy those who are sent to announce the living message of salvation.

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I find it interesting that we rarely honor prophets until after we have destroyed them. Perhaps it is required of a prophet to be treated badly, and to suffer persecution. That’s why we won’t know it when it smacks us in the face, unless we’re willing to get past being told we can do better. And prophets will tell us we can do better. It might sting a little. But the truth always will.

Rolo B. Castillo © 2013