Sunday, January 29, 2012
Who Is A Prophet?
(by James Tissot)
Massud Farzan (b. 1936), a contemporary Iranian poet, critic, short-story writer, and translator, relates a story about a man claiming to be God. He was taken to the Caliph who said, “Last year someone was claiming to be a prophet. He was executed.” “Serves him right,” the man replied, “I hadn’t sent him.”
How many people have there been throughout the centuries who have claimed to be prophets? Generally, these are folks who, rightly or wrongly, challenge society’s institutions. Today’s first reading (Deuteronomy 18:15-20) speaks of the prophetic office in general. Contrary to common popular understanding, a biblical prophet isn’t first and foremost a future-teller, but rather a spokesperson, an intermediary for the Divine. There are some criteria, as the reading intimates, for distinguishing a true prophet from a false one. The true prophet speaks in the One God’s name, not in the name of other so-called deities. False prophets claim God’s inspiration even though they know that they don’t have it. Our Sunday TV stations are rife with examples of such claims. Many of these false prophets, perhaps, are sincere in their zeal, but nevertheless speak mistakenly. I believe that Joseph Smith, responsible for Mormonism, is a classic example. The author of Deuteronomy hints that one needs to wait and see, in order to evaluate the fruits of a person’s claim. St. Paul grappled throughout his missionary career with folks who considered themselves spokespersons for God regarding the structure, theology and practices of the churches which he had established.
Paul carries the conversation on prophets further with the Corinthian community in the second reading (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). There are two kinds of “prophetic” knowledge, he says: 1) a knowledge which “puffs up”, the kind which a person, called or not by God, thinks s/he knows, but doesn’t; and 2) the knowledge which comes from sharing God’s love with others. Paul uses an example which doesn’t speak much to us today, perhaps: the use of meat offered in idol worship. Gnostic libertines in his time were using their “inside” knowledge to exalt themselves, while scandalizing their neighbor. Paul’s contention is that to sin against Christ by sinning against one another is a sure sign of one’s being a false prophet. No amount of “spiritual knowledge” justifies unloving regard of a sister or brother.
At the Eucharist which I attended this morning, the translation used for the second reading was taken from Eugene Peterson’s wonderful paraphrase, The Message, and I feel it’s useful to share it here because of the unique way it conveys what, I believe, Paul is trying to express:
“The question keeps coming up regarding meat that has been offered up to an idol: Should you attend meals where such meat is served, or not? We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions—but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds. We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all.
Some people say, quite rightly, that idols have no actual existence, that there's nothing to them, that there is no God other than our one God, that no matter how many of these so-called gods are named and worshiped they still don't add up to anything but a tall story. They say—again, quite rightly—that there is only one God the Father, that everything comes from him, and that he wants us to live for him. Also, they say that there is only one Master—Jesus the Messiah—and that everything is for his sake, including us. Yes. It's true.
In strict logic, then, nothing happened to the meat when it was offered up to an idol. It's just like any other meat. I know that, and you know that. But knowing isn't everything. If it becomes everything, some people end up as know-it-alls who treat others as know-nothings. Real knowledge isn't that insensitive.
We need to be sensitive to the fact that we're not all at the same level of understanding in this. Some of you have spent your entire lives eating "idol meat," and are sure that there's something bad in the meat that then becomes something bad inside of you. An imagination and conscience shaped under those conditions isn't going to change overnight.
But fortunately God doesn't grade us on our diet. We're neither commended when we clean our plate nor reprimanded when we just can't stomach it. But God does care when you use your freedom carelessly in a way that leads a fellow believer still vulnerable to those old associations to be thrown off track.
For instance, say you flaunt your freedom by going to a banquet thrown in honor of idols, where the main course is meat sacrificed to idols. Isn't there great danger if someone still struggling over this issue, someone who looks up to you as knowledgeable and mature, sees you go into that banquet? The danger is that he will become terribly confused—maybe even to the point of getting mixed up himself in what his conscience tells him is wrong.
Christ gave up his life for that person. Wouldn't you at least be willing to give up going to dinner for him—because, as you say, it doesn't really make any difference? But it does make a difference if you hurt your friend terribly, risking his eternal ruin! When you hurt your friend, you hurt Christ. A free meal here and there isn't worth it at the cost of even one of these "weak ones." So, never go to these idol-tainted meals if there's any chance it will trip up one of your brothers or sisters.”
The only authentic prophet, spokesperson for, or intermediary for God is Jesus whose relationship of love with God is so close as to constitute an identity with God. In the Gospel (Mark 1:21-28) Mark shows Jesus' authority by portraying him as a wonder-worker and healer, by putting the story within a framework which shows Jesus of Nazareth as teacher/prophet speaking with authority. The Greek word used for "authority", exousia, means something like “out of one’s own existence/self; mastery; taking charge; presence". The Latin equivalent, auctoritas, derives from the word for “to help increase/grow”. Jesus silences falsity and evil because he is the Holy One of God. Instead of “puffing up”, he builds up through love. He enables people to grow because he knows, and is known, by God, the source of love.
It’s possible even for you and me, at times, to mistakenly think of ourselves as, or to act like, a "prophet", to presume to speak for God. There are always people who feel compelled to speak out and to challenge society’s institutions, both civil and religious, and we’re seeing much of that currently. That’s actually good, for institutions need to be held accountable in order to truly serve the common good of humankind. History has repeatedly demonstrated how ecclesiastical and governmental systems get “puffed up” and fail to meet their responsibilities to society. Losing sight of the common good, institutional leaders, because they're human, are prone to become selfish and corrupt, to repress and oppress, through misused power and greed, the very people whom God intends for them to serve. In a way, they almost make necessary the appearance of outspoken, zealous, concerned, even angry, opponents who prick their consciences and put the spotlight on their shortcomings and sometimes willful maliciousness.
The danger with prophets, with those who attempt to speak for God, is perspective. Only those who continuously and intentionally seek to know and are known by God are able to keep any kind of balance. Too often, self-proclaimed prophets are tempted to put their supposed expertise or spiritual knowledge above what is genuinely for the good of all. Pride has a way of leading one to become a law to oneself, so much so that one can sometimes judge legitimate civil or religious institutions themselves as unnecessary, something, curiously, which God hasn’t seem to have found necessary in all of human history! John Wesley gives some sobering advice to aspiring prophets: “Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose voices, dreams, impressions, visions or revelations to be from God. They may be from God. They may be from nature. They may be from the devil.”
As followers of Jesus the Holy One, the only true measure of whether or not we speak authentically for the Gospel is Jesus himself. As members of the Church and as citizens of society we need to continually ask ourselves: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” We deserve no hearing unless we speak by his authority, by his presence.