Saturday, July 04, 2015

Prophetic Virtue

What makes a prophet distinct? For those nurtured on a steady diet of Harry Potter books, the work prophet probably evokes an image of Sybill Trelawney who prophesied the downfall of Voldemort. Those of another generation may think of Nostradamus whose gnomic writings continue to be puzzled over. Regardless, the common notion of a prophet is one who somehow foretells what is to come in the future. 

While not uninterested in the future, this is not quite the nature of the Biblical prophet. For prophets like Ezekiel, or John the Baptist, or Jesus, there are two distinctive traits:

  1. The prophet cannot not speak of God. 
  2. The prophet must (a) offer a critique of the present order and (b) reimagine it.
The vocation of the prophet is hardly, then, one involved with picking the next hot stock or winning combinations of lottery tickets. It is a demanding, austere, and difficult calling that offers no assurance of success. 

In this Sunday's readings, Ezekiel learns this first hand: he is sent to Israel without any gaurantee that his words will be heeded. As we hear, "they are a rebellious house." When Jesus came to his "native place," people were unnerved by his words and deeds. What he preached of the Kingdom disrupted the status quo and they quickly offered a reason to discount what he was saying and doing: "Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?" Their lack of faith prevented them from getting caught up God's reign...they preferred things "as they are" to allowing themselves to be roused into taking the risk of the Kingdom preached by Jesus. 

It is the vocation of the prophet to manifest single-minded devotion to a cause. The cause becomes the central focus of their life and all other causes and concerns recede into the distance. Somehow they are impelled to preach and to share, but never are they given a recipe for success. They can only preach, they can only share, and trust that those to whom they are sent will open their hearts to the message. Where hearts are opened, great transformation can take place. Where they remain closed and hardened, as Jesus learns, little growth is possible. 

If there is a virtue to be associated with the prophet, it would have to be that of resilience. I'm frequently amazed at how easily people become discouraged: any roadblock encountered becomes a warrant for abandoning one's quest. I've met more than a few students who dreamed of being doctors and, after getting a 'B' or 'C' in a class, totally abandoned their dreams because it "it's just too hard." Rather that finding in their difficulties a reason to work harder, a challenge to take up, they surrender. 

"A prophet," Jesus observes, "is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house." Those we have known for years, who have known us, know that when we preach that we are, quite often, hypocrites! Yet when we have been moved and sent by the Spirit, we cannot but offer to those we love what it is we have been given. Woe to us if we surrender too quickly because the road was difficult. 

For those summoned to be a prophet, be resilient of heart: no one said it was easy! For those summoned by the prophet's call, for those of us unnerved when a word breaks in upon us and threatens to disorient us or call us to see things anew, be warned. We may think ourselves preserving a solid notion of tradition when, in fact, we are working against the work of the Spirit. For us, too, there is no easy litmus test to detect the Spirit's presence. We have only to listen attentively and respond faithfully whenever, wherever, and however we are being called. 
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