03 February 2013

Called to be Prophets for our Time

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) –  3 February 2013

Readings: Jer 1:4-5, 17-19; Ps 71:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15-17; 1 Cor 12:31—13:13 or 13:4-13; Lk 4:21-30

Our Gospel passage today is a continuation of the story last Sunday. Here we listen to the reaction of Jesus’ hometown crowd to His message. It went from condescending amazement to irate contempt to attempted murder. But it was not yet His time, and so – as the Gospel tersely puts it – He “passed through the midst of them and went away”.

The theme of the Readings this Sunday is that of “prophecy”. The First Reading describes the call of the prophet Jeremiah. In the Gospel, Jesus utters the (in)famous line: “no prophet is accepted in his own native place”.

Why is prophecy important to our lives as Christians? What does it mean really? Is every Christian called to be a prophet, or is it just limited to a chosen few?

The Catechism teaches us: “By Baptism the baptized share in the priesthood of Christ, in his prophetic and royal mission” (CCC 1268). Thus, every baptized Christian is called to be a prophet like Christ.

Now, as to what it means to be a prophet, I would like to share three characters of the prophetic mission.

1. Prophecy is in the service of the word of God.

For the ancient Greeks, prophecy is the gift of discerning the will of the gods. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition however, prophets are chosen by God to communicate His message to the community.

In the Old Testament, the message of the prophets usually begins with “dabar Yahweh”, “this is the word of Yahweh…”, “Yahweh says…”, “thus spoke Yahweh…” This signifies that the words of the prophets are not their own but God’s, and their mission is to transmit them faithfully to the people.

There is a common characteristic among prophecies in the Old Testament: they are constant reminders to the people. Prophecies generally offer not some new teaching but a reiteration of some aspect of the Law or the whole spirit of it, for example, on true worship, on justice, and love of the poor.

2. Prophecy is a work of truth-telling in love.

St. Paul in 1 Cor 13,1-3 (in the Second Reading) states: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Prophecy is all about truth-telling. But when truth is used without love, it can be a weapon of destruction. It can destroy self-esteem, reputation, even lives. Let us remember this when we feel compelled to speak about right and wrong to a friend or to a community in need of guidance.

God sent prophets to His wayward people because of His love for them. Prophets, even when their words sting, still transmit God’s love and guidance to His people.

3. Prophecy is witnessing to an authentic life.

The first hearer of God’s message is the prophet himself. Thus, the first to follow the message he is to transmit must be the prophet himself as well. If in the past we hear “practice what you preach”, today we also hear “the medium is the message”. And this is true not just to preachers, but to anyone who has the mission of being a prophet, which is to say, every Christian. Pope Paul VI has this say: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

Now committing to an authentic life is just an initial step. This commitment will be greatly tested when faced with rejection. The lives of prophets are not easy. Almost always they are met with opposition, suspicion and persecution. Jesus several times reminded the Jews of what their forefathers did to the prophets of their time: they killed them. Jesus the prophet follows the same path as the prophets of old.

The Gospel story this Sunday is but one of many instances when Jesus’ message and person met rejection. It is also a solemn reminder to his followers that engaging in prophetic ministry is fraught with difficulties. But this should not dishearten us.

When rejection comes, it has to be acknowledged – and analyzed. Maybe it happened because our truth-telling was lacking in love, and so more love is required. Or because our intended recipient or audience was not yet ready, and so more patience is required. And then there are also the kind of rejection that seeks to discourage us from pursuing the good that we do or intimidate us into giving up.

Posted on the wall in one of Blessed Theresa of Calcutta’s homes for children in India are some lines known as the “Paradoxical Commandments”. The motivational speaker Dr. Kent M. Keith wrote those lines as a way of dealing with the debilitating effects of rejection, especially for those working to make people’s lives better.

“People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.”

Another popular version of these lines in the internet ends with:

"Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough, give the world the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway."

In the First Reading, when God called Jeremiah, He was quite clear about the resistance and persecution His prophet will face in pursuing his mission. God was also quite clear about another thing: that He will be with Him all the way assuring his victory.

Jer 1,19 says:” They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”

Prophecy means proclaiming bravely the truth of God's love. God is calling. Are you willing to become prophets for our time?

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