Today’s readings focus on prophets and prophecy, so perhaps we need to clarify our ideas about who and what they are. Prophecy was a revelation from God to the prophet, which it was his task to transmit to others. It was not necessarily prediction, although it often did involve an announcement of the consequences of non-compliance. Typically, the prophet becomes aware of an irresistible divine call: I send you! Jeremiah, for instance, tried to wriggle out of the vocation, saying “I am just a child; I don’t know how to speak”. God would have none of that: You will say … The prophet is not required to compose speeches; he has only to relay God’s words to those to whom he is sent. As a result, they will know… and they will be responsible for their own decision to heed or to ignore the word of God.
If we listen again at today’s reading from Ezekiel we find: The spirit came to me … I heard the Lord … ‘Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to the rebels who have turned against me …to say “The Lord says this”. Whether they listen or not, this set of rebels shall know there is a prophet among them’.
This extract consists of just 4 verses from the second chapter of the book of Ezekiel, which runs to 48 chapters altogether. So we have not heard any specific message today. What usually authenticated a prophet’s message was either, that it conformed perfectly with earlier teachings, i.e. it renewed God’s messages to his people, or a prediction was fulfilled. You may remember the story of Naaman, the commander of the army of a neighbouring state, who was a leper. At the suggestion of a little Jewish girl who was his wife’s servant, he was sent to the king of Israel to be healed. The king of Israel said “For goodness’ sake, I can’t do that” and tore his garments. When the prophet Elisha heard this he said: Let him come to me, and he will find there is a prophet in Israel. I’ll abbreviate the story, but Naaman was healed and exclaimed: Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.
Sometimes there arose false prophets in Israel. Moses warned the people of this possibility and said: If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and offers to do a sign or a wonder for you, and the sign or wonder comes about; and if he then says to you, ‘Come then, let us follow other gods and serve them’, you are not to listen … That prophet or that dreamer of dreams must be put to death. In other words, the fulfilment of a prediction alone is not enough if the prophet suggests some conduct which diverges from the teaching received through Moses.
At one point in his second letter to the Corinthians, St Paul relates some of the dramatic incidents in his missionary life. He has been imprisoned and flogged; he has survived three shipwrecks; he’s known hunger and thirst and cold; he’s been in danger from brigands as well as from false brethren; he had to flee from Damascus by being let down in a basket from the town walls. He insists, however, that he is not boasting. He goes on to mention the spiritual experiences of ‘someone he knew’ – but of course he’s not boasting. Nonetheless he’s conscious of having been blessed by God in many ways. But since God doesn’t want him to get an inflated idea of his own worth he writes that I was given a thorn in the flesh … to beat me and stop me from getting too proud.
Scholars have discussed the thorn in the flesh endlessly. I don’t think there can ever be a definitive explanation, but one plausible possibility is a speech defect. Earlier in the same letter Paul quotes someone as saying: He writes powerful and strongly-worded letters but when he is with you, you see only half a man and no preacher at all. A little further on he himself writes: I may not be a polished speechmaker, but as for knowledge, that is a different matter. The important point in this letter is Paul’s quotation of Jesus’ message to him” My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness. We need to understand this correctly. Of course Jesus is stronger than we are – but Jesus will not force his will upon us. We cannot give way to evil inclinations and say “Jesus will look after me”. That would be presumption. What we can do is recognize our own weaknesses and beg Jesus to come to our aid when we are sorely tempted to do what is wrong. That is when we will be able to say with Paul: It is when I am weak that I am strong.
Was Paul a prophet? I think not: he was an apostle, and a very dynamic apostle. If asked to sum up the characteristics of a prophet, we can say that the prophet is a person who has an immediate experience of God, and to whom the holiness and will of God have been revealed. The prophet looks at the present and the future through the eyes of God. He is sent to remind the people of their duty to God and to bring them back to obedience and love.
In this sense, then, we can say that Jesus himself was a prophet. In today’s gospel, which follows straight on from last week’s account of the revival of the daughter of Jairus, and the healing of the woman with a haemorrhage, Jesus returns to Nazareth, where he had grown up. Jesus knew the people of that town and they, especially his own relatives, thought they knew him. But when Jesus started teaching in the synagogue – which any adult Jew was entitled to do – they were disconcerted. Elsewhere, you will recall, people were impressed by what Jesus had to say – His teaching made a deep impression on the people because he taught them with authority, and not like their own scribes. (Mt 7: 29)
By contrast, in Nazareth, everyone thought they knew all there was to know about Jesus. He was a good bloke – just like themselves in fact. Their familiarity with him prevented them from seeing just how different he was from them. None of them could explain Scripture like he could; none of them could heal sick people like he could. Just a few Nazarenes believed in him; those few he was able to cure by laying his hands on them. As regards the others, he was amazed at their lack of faith. He remarked sadly that a prophet is only despised in his own country among his own relations and in his own house.
This brings us to a serious question: are there any prophets around today? Personally I think there are. Think for a moment of Mother Theresa of Calcutta and all she did for the poorest and most neglected of people. Think of Fr Ted Kennedy, sometime PP of Redfern, and of all he did for the aborigines in Sydney. Going a little further back, but still in the lifetime of many of us, think of Dom Helder Camara, a former archbishop of Recife in Brazil who did so much to recognize the dignity of the poor people of his diocese. Think of those two great South Africans, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
The prophets are friends of God, called to proclaim and demonstrate God’s will. It is not enough for us simply to applaud them. We are called to imitate them. (Q.Howard)