Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I would not make a very good prophet. As far as I can tell, wherever a prophet is found, trouble is not far behind. I am a middle child. I will avoid tension and conflict at all costs. Rarely would a middle child initiate tension or conflict. And if it must be done, it is only to divert attention away from oneself usually by pitting opposing sides against each other. And as they go at it, we then quietly fade out of view. My people are lovers of peace and harmony and getting along nicely. We will enjoy some attention and positive feedback but it is not in our nature to demand the spotlight. We are capable of intensely focusing on a number of worthwhile endeavors, of working hard, and producing excellent results. But prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel hardly inspire me or my kind to pursue a similar calling. We don’t poke bears or wake dragons. We fly kites and make pottery and listen to music with headphones. But if push comes to shove, we will fight dirty. That’s because vanishing into thin air or running away are not realistic options.
No child dreams of becoming a prophet one day. No parent ever steers their son or daughter in that direction. Spouses of prophets will not claim the honor. Children of prophets will not follow in their footsteps. They do not like to speak about it with their friends or their therapists. Career and job searches will never mention it. Guidance counselors will not invite students to consider it. Academic advisors will not suggest it with hopes of great personal satisfaction or employment potential. No institution of higher learning confers such a degree, no process exists to acquire certification, no continuing ed program to keep updated on new research and popular trends. Life as a prophet is not a sane first, second, or 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 intentionally hires a prophet. There are no listings in the want ads or the phone book. No temp agency has ever sent anyone to a gig as a prophet. No one puts it in their resume or their business cards. There are no do-it-yourself starter kits, no incentives to entice job seekers, no stock options, and no advancement track. Prophets get no days off, no vacation, no sick leave, no severance package. There are no annual industry conventions, and no hotline for advice or support. They live stressful lives, and no one really retires. And while death on the job is not guaranteed, it is quite common. And prophets are not known to publish their own memoirs.
Throughout Israel’s history prophets spoke on God’s behalf, calling the people to conversion when they strayed, reminding them of the consequences of their actions. And while prophets were eventually recognized as bearers of God’s will, a system of prophets arose who served the people’s leaders, basically proclaiming the will of the king or high priest but made to 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.)
Soon people had trouble telling which were true prophets since they all claimed to speak God’s will. They soon learned that true prophets shared certain characteristics. (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 real prophets and fakes, but due to the unpleasant aspects of following real prophets, they [will hesitate] to point them out.” A commentary I read added one more characteristic coming from one of the author’s scripture professors. He says, “authentic prophets always confuse people.” (ibid.)
Prophets will make people uncomfortable. They usually have very few friends because they like to tell the truth, which is risky even among friends. They challenge us to a higher standard of faithfulness, even when we’re doing just fine. They don’t care whether or not people agree with them. They must speak their message. I’ve heard that a prophet who people like is probably doing it wrong.
Prophets will also live in a way that sets them apart, making everyone else look bad. So, we won’t want to be seen with them. They may be aware they can sometimes be lightning rods; they just don’t care. They are motivated by nobler objectives. They have loftier goals to achieve. And they take their marching orders very seriously.
Jeremiah is unarguably one of the most high-profile prophets in Israel’s history, speaking God’s will with unwavering conviction. He was poorly treated because he got on people’s nerves. He suffered persecution much of his life, and his followers did not fare much better. The Lord Jesus suffered a similar fate, and many followers after him. But his words today 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. And this in a culture of close family ties where the risk of division was unthinkable. But he also didn’t tell his disciples to parade their faith to annoy anyone. A few notable parades have historically caused as much irritation and violent reaction.
The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus embraced suffering for our sake, enduring the cross and despising its shame. We should purge ourselves of sin and persevere in faith. And for some, blood will be shed. And how you invite others to conversion is crucial. But do not lose heart. We, too, are destined for glory.
Prophets challenge us to live in God’s grace and be more like Jesus. The witness of a true disciple is to be passionate, to be on fire with mercy and thankfulness and loving service. If those to whom we go heed the Spirit, they will turn from sin and be reconciled. Or they might simply ignore it. But they might also oppose those who call them to conversion with violence and dire consequences.
Like the prophets of old, Jesus desires to set the world ablaze causing people to rethink their relationships one to another. Those who grasp the true meaning of their discipleship must choose which relationships to keep. A prophet I am not and setting the world on fire doesn’t require poking the bear. It’s not what a middle child would do. But a convincing witness of faith demands we first be on fire with mercy and thankfulness and loving service. Ultimately, conversion is the objective, not division. And a dead prophet is not likely to get the job done.
Rolo B Castillo © 2022