Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, archangels

[Mass for the school children.]

archangels

Today’s feast | Readings: Tobit 5, Tobit 11 & Tobit 12; Revelation 12:7-12; Matthew 1:18-25

The world can be a confusing and scary place some times. Sometimes when we go on a journey, we lose our way and get lost. Sometimes when we get lost, it’s because men like me don’t stop and ask for directions! Sometimes people get sick, or maybe they get hurt, or maybe they are blind or deaf The world can be a lonely place for those who are sick. The too, there is danger in lots of places, and sometimes we don’t feel very safe. And sometimes we don’t know the truth, or hear any good news. The truth is, lots of times, we need someone to help us. Sometimes we need to hear from an angel.

Today is the Feast of Ss. Raphael, Michael and Gabriel. Since our church is named after St. Raphael, this is a very special day for us. But it’s a special day for everyone because the angels that we’ve heard about today are great helps to us every day.

Some angels are guides. Today we heard about our patron, St. Raphael, who was a guide for Tobiah in our first reading. St. Raphael appeared as a young man and accompanied Tobiah as he journeyed a long distance to get his father’s property and bring it back. Tobit, his father, was very worried about Tobiah making the journey, so he was looking for someone to help him. Raphael, posing as the young man, went with Tobiah and brought him home safely, along with his father’s property. St. Raphael is the patron saint of travelers.

Some angels bring healing. The name Raphael actually means, “God heals.” Tobit, Tobiah’s father, was blind for a long time. So, along with bringing back Tobit’s property, Raphael and Tobiah brought back an ointment made of fish gall. Tobiah blew into his father’s eyes and smeared the medicine on them, and Tobit was able to see his son again! Raphael also healed a woman named Sarah. She was married seven times, but each of her husbands died on their wedding night, and Sarah thought she would be alone for the rest of her life. Raphael arranged for Tobiah and Sarah to be married, and they both lived very happily. St. Raphael is also the patron saint of healing, especially of the blind.

Some angels are defenders. In the second reading, Satan was trying to take over heaven and accused all of God’s followers, good people, of all kinds of crimes. St. Michael fought against Satan and had him thrown out of heaven. He brought victory to God by being strong in the battle against Satan and all evil powers, and he still defends people against evil to this day by his prayers. Because he defends people, St. Michael is the patron saint of police officers.

Some angels are messengers. St. Gabriel was the angel who came to tell Mary that she was going to be the Mother of Jesus. In our Gospel reading, St. Gabriel also comes to St. Joseph, who was engaged to Mary, and reassured him. Joseph knew that he wasn’t the father of Jesus, so he was going to quietly call off the wedding. But Gabriel came and assured him that the baby Mary was going to have was from God, and because of what Gabriel told him, St. Joseph stayed with Mary and became to earthly father of Jesus. Gabriel is known for the news that he brings, and is the patron saint of messengers, postal workers, communications workers and broadcasters.

All three of these angels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, came to make God’s presence known on earth in some way. Our patron, St. Raphael, came to be Tobiah’s guide and to bring God’s healing to Tobit and Sarah. St. Michael came to defend God’s people against evil and danger. St. Gabriel came to bring good news about Jesus and how God was going to save the world through Jesus.

I wonder, sometimes, if there are still angels among us. Maybe St. Raphael is still here, keeping us safe when we go on long journeys and, more importantly, helping us to stay on the path to God. He might be here, too, working through the hands of doctors and nurses and physical therapists, and all kinds of healers, to bring sick people back to health. Maybe St. Michael is still here, working through police officers and fire fighters and all kinds of public safety people, in order to keep our communities safe, and maybe St. Michael also works through those who defend the Church against all kinds of evil. Maybe St. Gabriel is still here among us, telling us how to follow Jesus; maybe he’s working through our parents and teachers and priests and ministers when they bring us news about God.

We know a little bit about all these angels because of the stories we read about them in the Bible. But I don’t think those stories are finished just yet. I think the angels are still working among us, guiding us, healing us, defending us, and bringing us good news. The angels are probably working through people you know. Maybe they’re even working through you whenever you help someone else. The truth is, I don’t think we would live very safe and happy lives if it wasn’t for the angels among us. Today we should thank God for Saints Raphael, Michael and Gabriel, and for all the people who cooperate with those angels in all their work.

Thursday of the 25th Week of Ordinary Time: He kept trying to see him

Today’s readings

“And he kept trying to see him.”

Certainly Herod’s motives for trying to see Jesus were highly suspect. He obviously wanted to be sure Jesus didn’t pose some kind of threat to him. And if it was the person of John the Baptist resurrected, Herod would have wanted him out of the way immediately. So we can’t be too proud of Herod for wanting to see Jesus, but maybe we can take that and let it be our own mission, for better motives, of course.

How often do we try to see Jesus? Do we take time to sit before the Blessed Sacrament either in the tabernacle or on days of adoration? We spend the time to look at Jesus and let him look at us, so that when we meet in heaven, we’ll recognize one another! Even just a few minutes a day would be great. And if we can’t make it in for adoration, we can always set time aside to at least be with him in prayer. We have to keep trying to see him.

Another way that we have to keep trying to see Jesus is by serving the poor. I was helping at Hesed House last month, and one of the parishioners I was working along side of said to me, “Can’t you just see the face of Christ in all of them?” He was right. Jesus has made it clear that whatever we do to a brother or sister in need; that we do to him. So we must be intentional about reaching out to the poor and hungry and homeless. We have to keep trying to see him.

And we have to see Jesus in the people around us, all of the people in our lives. Whether it’s friends, family, coworkers, or fellow students, we believe that Christ is in that person. In his famous Rule, St. Benedict says, “Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ.” Whoever God puts in our life for any amount of time, must be seen as Christ, and we must make it our daily prayer that we could see people as Christ does. It is one of my deepest convictions that I know that God loves me largely because of the love of all the people he has given me in my life. We have to keep trying to see him.

So, we know that Herod had it all wrong, motive-wise. But he was right in his eagerness to see Christ. We, too, have to keep trying to see him.

Tuesday of the 25th Week of Ordinary Time: Simplicity of Life

Today's readings

My mother and my brothers
are those who hear the word of God and act on it.

We should be careful not to take this as Jesus downplaying the importance of Mary. We know that he deeply cared for and loved his mother. What he is doing here, though, is forging a deep relationship with those who hear the word of God and act on it. Those people are truly family to Jesus, part of the assembly of his brothers and sisters. We should all strive to be placed in this great company.

And today it is the book of Proverbs that speaks to us about how we can accomplish this. The text gives us practical examples of the word of God. The wise person, the one who would be in the family of Jesus, is one who strives for righteousness and justice, avoids haughtiness and pride, is diligent and honest, is compassionate, avoids arrogance and instead pursues simplicity and integrity, one who hears the cry of the poor.

The Liturgy's words to us today are simple, brothers and sisters in Christ, but in some ways very challenging. To live simple and honest lives with integrity and justice, and to reach out to those in need – all of that is the Gospel's challenge in a nutshell. And those of us who would strive to be the brothers and sisters of Jesus are called to pursue that kind of life.

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time: It’s all about kenosis

Today's readings

In some ways, it's the classic schoolyard disagreement.  "My dad can beat up your dad."  Or, even better, maybe it's the classic sibling rivalry: "Mom likes me best."  These things are sort of understandable among children.  Children growing up need to know where they fit in to the structure of society, so there are a lot of comparisons going on all the time.  But when that kind of argument begins to take place among adults, it loses all its charm.  When that kind of disagreement happens among disciples, it begins to become sinful.

In today's Gospel, Jesus has just told his disciples what, up to now, has been a secret of his life among them.  He is to be arrested, killed, and to rise again.  The disciples of course had no idea what he meant.  They thought of him as the Messiah, and in their notion of what the Messiah was, that kind of end didn't fit in at all.  They expected the Messiah to reign triumphant and restore primacy to Israel.  The Messiah was not to suffer and die.  Yet that, Jesus says, is exactly the kind of Messiah that he was to be.  They also did not understand about him rising from the dead.  The notion of life after death was not widely accepted at that time, so we can certainly excuse them from that.  All in all, it would take Jesus' actual death and Resurrection before the disciples would understand any of this at all.

But what is most surprising about today's Gospel is that, given that they did not understand what Jesus was talking about, they didn't bother to ask him what he meant.  Maybe they had gotten used to some of Jesus' words going over their heads.  Maybe they were afraid of the Teacher's rebuke.  Whatever the reason, they decided to let it go.  But what happens next is what is most unfortunate.  Instead of seeking clarification on an important issue for their discipleship, they have an argument about who was the greatest among them!  It's one thing not to understand, but quite another to let it go and then act like children.

Jesus, however, is the Good Teacher, and uses the opportunity not to rebuke them – although they certainly deserved a rebuke – but instead to teach them the importance of kenosis.  Kenosis is Greek for "self-emptying" or pouring out, as in a libation or drink-offering.  And this is what ties the second half of the Gospel reading together with the first half.  Jesus was going to have to empty himself by laying down his life.  Just so, the disciple would have to empty him or herself by becoming the last of all and the servant of all.  In this instruction, Jesus turns the whole social ranking system upside-down.  He places a child among them.  A child in that society had no rights or status whatsoever.  Women and children only had the status or rights given by the men in society, a husband or father.  But Jesus says that it is only by becoming a child, that is, by pouring out oneself, that one has status in the Kingdom of God.  Only the one who is the last of all and the servant of all can become the greatest of all.

The readings today talk about righteousness, that is, a right relationship with God and others that comes from an interior quality of transparency, integrity and grace.  It would turn the whole schoolyard disagreement upside down if children were to argue: "My father is more righteous than your father."  Or, "My mother has more integrity than your mother."  But the fact is, righteousness matters very little to anyone these days.  Think about what we do value: people who entertain us, even by their own misdeeds; athletic ability, even if the person needs some steroids or illicit substances to get there; political power, even if there is corruption behind it.  I think about the rather unfortunate person of Lance Armstrong who was lauded for his ability to overcome cancer and win several Tours de France, but immediately turned away from the wife who was faithful to him during his battle with cancer the moment she contracted cancer herself.  Will we remember his lack of righteousness, or will we more likely remember his cycling triumphs?

If righteousness is hardly valued, the first reading indicates that righteousness is hardly tolerated.  The just one, whoever it is, has accused the members of his or her own community of their own lack of righteousness.  They have been accused of violating the law and turning away from the way they had been taught.  Rather than calling them back to their senses, this has angered them and caused them to consider doing violence to the just one.  Yes, the just one could withstand the shameful death the others planned, because God would care for the just one.  This leads me to a point that I made in my lecture to the CREEDS group this past week.  One of my instructors used to tell us that we must always love what Jesus loved when he was on the Cross, and despise what Jesus despised while he hung there in agony.  If God would care for the just one, then we disciples had better care for him or her too.  And, we disciples had better listen to that just one, even if the just one's teaching means a change in our behavior and way of life.

The second reading from the letter of St. James makes this all very practically clear.  Righteousness leads to a wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity or anything of that sort.  Righteousness leads to true peace.  It is the lack of righteousness that leads to wars of all sorts.  Covetousness, envy, violence, fighting and war – all these are the result of forgetting righteousness and not attaining the kind of wisdom that comes from that right relationship with God and others.  And all of this nonsense is ultimately unfulfilling.  Listen to James again:

You covet but do not possess.
You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and wage war.
You do not possess because you do not ask.
You ask but do not receive,
because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

Will all of this bickering and fighting ever get us anyplace?  No, because all of this is "asking wrongly," out of passion instead of righteousness.

What will it take, then, for us to start getting this right?  How will we ever achieve peace in our world, peace in our communities, peace in our families and peace in our hearts?  What will it take to become the first of all, to attain real greatness in the Kingdom of God?  "If anyone wishes to be first, he or she shall be the last of all and the servant of all."  It's all about kenosis, brothers and sisters in Christ.  We have to realize that our salvation will only come about by pouring out our lives for our brothers and sisters.  We may think we can become number one by looking out for number one only.  We may think we can get ahead by tending to our own interests first and foremost.  But Jesus tells us today that quite the opposite is true.  To become number one, to really get ahead, we must serve all of our brothers and sisters.  We must lay down our lives in every way possible and raise up others whenever we see them down.  Getting this right, becoming truly righteous, will involve us tending to the needs of others first and foremost, knowing that God will take care of the just one.

Friday of the 24th Week of Ordinary Time: Women of Faith

Today’s Readings

What would happen if Christ never rose from the dead? Well, I doubt we would be here today, because as important as Christ’s living and preaching was, it is the Resurrection that gives meaning to it all. This is why it’s important to know that we cannot, as some suggest, do all our praying by looking at nature or meditating by ourselves. We need to hear the proclamation of the kerygma, that is, the message of the Gospel and of salvation, if we are ever to know God’s presence. As beautiful as nature can be, it’s nothing compared to looking at the face of Jesus. As nice as meditating is, we have to have something real to meditate on, or we’ll never rise above our own foolishness.

Today we get a wonderful little look at those who were the first proclaimers of the Risen Christ: the women who were his disciples. We need to thank God for Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and the others, who were the first witnesses to the Resurrection, and the first to proclaim the Good News that Jesus is risen. If not for them, we may not be here today. Think too of all the women whose testimony and urging have proclaimed the faith throughout the ages. I think of St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, who urged her son and prayed tirelessly to God for his conversion. I think of my own grandmothers and mother who first taught me the faith. I think of Sr. Merita who taught my fourth grade religious education class. Think of all the women religious in all the schools and parishes throughout the years. Think of all the women in our families who have faithfully passed on the Gospel to their sons and daughters. Thank God for all these wonderful witnesses who have assured that we know the Truth, and who by their living have passed on the faith and have led us to the forgiveness of our sins.

St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

Today’s readings

st-matthew

I often wish that I could see in people the same things that Jesus sees. Obviously, Matthew was not qualified for the role of apostle, but he was called anyway. Matthew was, as we know, a tax collector. Tax collectors in those days tended to be rather unscrupulous. They would have assigned to them people from whom to collect a tax, and they would be charged a certain amount by the government to be paid by the people assigned to them. Anything they could collect above and beyond that was theirs to keep. So tax collectors were seen as greedy and usurious, collecting taxes far beyond what people should have been required to pay.

So it’s hard to blame the Pharisees for being taken aback at Jesus dining with tax collectors and other sinners. But Jesus could see beyond all that. First, he saw that these people were willing to be healed of their sins and infirmities. The Pharisees had their own spiritual ailments, of course, but they were unwilling to address them. Matthew and the others were. But second, Jesus also saw something in Matthew that said he would be a good leader and preacher. He obviously was, because we have the Gospel that bears his name as the fruit of his labor.

Wouldn’t it be great, then, to see people as Jesus does? To get beyond the things that are others’ rough edges, even beyond all the things about others that can really annoy us. What a gift it would be to see straight into the hearts of all of them, and to love them for the gifts they were created to be! My prayer is always that I can see others and love others as Jesus does. If we all did that, think how many Matthews there would be, all proclaiming the Gospel!

The Prophets: So What?

A lecture given to the St. Raphael Church CREEDS Bible Study
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-13 | Matthew 23:1-15, 29-39

The prophets were all very strange men, it seems. Probably the reaction to them was a little like what we might experience if someone came running up the front aisle of Church on Sunday hollering all kinds of crazy things. We would all probably be a little frightened at first, then confused, and finally a little embarrassed that someone would make such a scene in a public setting. I imagine that’s how the prophets were probably received early on, although they were probably more common in those days. I don’t mean to suggest that all prophets were nuts, although there might have been some of that. And the culture seems to have been more used to prophets in those days, more so than they are now. Sometimes, it seems that people were more annoyed by prophets than anything else. They were strange men, they went against the grain, but we believe they had an important message.

What I’d like to do in this talk is to paint a picture of who the prophet was. What was he like, and what purpose did he serve. Then I want to talk about Jesus as a prophet, and finally reflect for a time on why today we need to have prophets among us.

I. The Prophet

So let’s begin with the call of the prophet. We might like to think they were all immediately responsive when God called them, but the evidence proves this not to be true. There was nothing romantic about the prophet’s job. We can see that in the reading from Isaiah that we just heard. We tend to get all warm and fuzzy about Isaiah’s call right up to the point where he says “Here I am, send me!” But the second part of that reading indicated that his ministry was not destined for wild success. He was to say to them: “Listen carefully, but you shall not understand! Look intently, but you shall know nothing!” And this kind of thing would go on right up to the point where the community was destroyed: “Until the cities are desolate, without inhabitants, Houses, without a man, and the earth is a desolate waste.” On hearing that how many of us would leap to our feet and cry out “sign me up!?”

The same was true of the prophet Jeremiah. Many people, at their ordinations (yours truly included in that), pick the call of Jeremiah for the first reading. Here’s what it says:

The word of the LORD came to me thus:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
“Ah, Lord GOD!” I said, “I know not how to speak; I am too young.”
But the LORD answered me, Say not, “I am too young.” To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
Then the LORD extended his hand and touched my mouth, saying, See, I place my words in your mouth!
This day I set you over nations and over kingdoms, To root up and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.

That’s beautiful, isn’t it? It implies such a close relationship between God and Jeremiah that God would give him the words to speak and Jeremiah would accomplish great things. But here’s the part we all leave out of those Ordination readings:

The word of the LORD came to me with the question: What do you see, Jeremiah? “I see a branch of the watching-tree,” I replied.
Then the LORD said to me: Well have you seen, for I am watching to fulfill my word.
A second time the word of the LORD came to me with the question: What do you see? “I see a boiling cauldron,” I replied, “that appears from the north.” And from the north, said the LORD to me, evil will boil over upon all who dwell in the land.

From the very moment of the prophet’s call, he is told that his words will be essentially without effect. It’s no wonder there wasn’t exactly a great line of people waiting to be chosen as a prophet. In fact, most of the prophets were to some degree or another unwilling to take the call. Moses protests he is not a great speaker, Jeremiah complains about being too young. And let’s not forget Jonah, who was so offended by the call to preach to the Ninevites – the same Ninevites who could rot in hell as far as he was concerned – that he jumped the nearest boat to anywhere but Nineveh and ended up swallowed up by a great fish. It’s a little like being called to be a bishop today. The guys who jump at the offer are usually not the ones who should be doing it, and the ones who would be really good try to avoid it for everything they are worth. Being called to be a prophet was a frightening thing, and one can understand the reluctance of those called to answer the call.

Much could be said about the prophet’s situation, from a political and social standpoint. It’s a bit different for each prophet, depending on when they were actively preaching, but the theme is essentially the same. The kings of Israel and Judah were bad; actually they were rotten to the core. Some were better than others, but generally they are portrayed in scripture as evil, corrupt, and prone to lead the people to false worship and callous disregard for those in need. This started with King Solomon, noted for his humble prayer for wisdom and his building of the temple. But not long after that, we are told he came to love “many foreign women” who turned his heart from the Lord. After that, it all went downhill, with every king worse than his predecessor. A couple of generations into the mess, Abijah, the son of Jeroboam became ill. He sent his wife to consult with the prophet Ahijah, and this is what he was told:

Go, tell Jeroboam, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I exalted you from among the people and made you ruler of my people Israel. I deprived the house of David of the kingdom and gave it to you. Yet you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with his whole heart, doing only what pleased me. You have done worse than all who preceded you: you have gone and made for yourself strange gods and molten images to provoke me; but me you have cast behind your back. Therefore, I am bringing evil upon the house of Jeroboam: I will cut off every male in Jeroboam’s line, whether slave or freeman in Israel, and will burn up the house of Jeroboam completely, as though dung were being burned. When one of Jeroboam’s line dies in the city, dogs will devour him; when one of them dies in the field, he will be devoured by the birds of the sky. For the LORD has spoken!’ So leave; go home! As you step inside the city, the child will die.” (1 Kings 14:7-12)

So, in short, there was no dearth of things for the prophet to preach about. But I want to step back and take a look at the situation of the prophet as part of salvation history. From the point of the Fall in the Garden of Eden, God has been separated from humanity by a vast chasm of sin and death, what one of my professors in seminary – whose diagram I am borrowing for this part of the presentation – used to call “the deep, dark yogurt of sin and death.” The people were unhappy, to be sure, because they were deprived of the ability to commune with God, and they had no hope. And if they were unhappy, God was even more unhappy, and he often tried to do something about it. That was the whole point of the prophets, and they tried desperately to preach to those who were immersed in the whole deep dark yogurt thing. Time and time again, free will would cause the people of God to turn away from him. But they couldn’t say they hadn’t been warned.

Indeed, the prophet was on the hook for proclaiming the truth. Whether or not the people responded, the prophet’s salvation was intimately linked with proclaiming the words of God. If he proclaimed anything else for any reason, like to save his life, he would indeed lose his life with God. Ezekiel is told:

Thus the word of the LORD came to me: Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman for the house of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, you shall warn them for me. If I say to the wicked man, You shall surely die; and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his wicked conduct so that he may live: that wicked man shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death. If, on the other hand, you have warned the wicked man, yet he has not turned away from his evil nor from his wicked conduct, then he shall die for his sin, but you shall save your life. If a virtuous man turns away from virtue and does wrong when I place a stumbling block before him, he shall die. He shall die for his sin, and his virtuous deeds shall not be remembered; but I will hold you responsible for his death if you did not warn him. When, on the other hand, you have warned a virtuous man not to sin, and he has in fact not sinned, he shall surely live because of the warning, and you shall save your own life. (Ezekiel 3:17-21)

The message of the prophet has two general themes. The first is that false worship is not salvific. When worship translates to nothing more than empty words and meaningless rituals, God is not pleased. No matter how ornate the Temple was or how beautiful the worship, if the worshippers went from there to murder and plunder, it was of no value. If they worshipped the Lord in one moment, and sacrificed to the false Baal-gods the next, worship was nothing more than a lie. And God was fed up with it enough to say through Jeremiah:

Are you to steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal, go after strange gods that you know not, and yet come to stand before me in this house which bears my name, and say: “We are safe; we can commit all these abominations again”? Has this house which bears my name become in your eyes a den of thieves? I too see what is being done, says the LORD. You may go to Shiloh, which I made the dwelling place of my name in the beginning. See what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. And now, because you have committed all these misdeeds, says the LORD, because you did not listen, though I spoke to you untiringly; because you did not answer, though I called you, I will do to this house named after me, in which you trust, and to this place which I gave to you and your fathers, just as I did to Shiloh. I will cast you away from me, as I cast away all your brethren, all the offspring of Ephraim.

And to Jeremiah, God said,

You, now, do not intercede for this people; raise not in their behalf a pleading prayer! Do not urge me, for I will not listen to you. (Jeremiah 7:9-15)

The second major prophetic theme is God’s deep concern and care for the dispossessed in society, namely widows, orphans and resident aliens. Widows had no standing in the society of the time because they did not have a husband to defend and provide for them. Orphans were similarly dispossessed because they had no father. The resident alien was on the margins of society because he or she was not a citizen, and thus had no rights. For these who had no one to care for them, God cared very deeply, and the obligation of society toward these dispossessed goes all the way back to Deuteronomy. In the Laws written in Deuteronomy, we find among other things, a prohibition of taking a person’s cloak or property as collateral on a loan, because it left the poor with nothing. Violation of this law was not trivial, in the prophetic imagination it was a disaster. Listen to Amos on this point:

Thus says the LORD: For three crimes of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke my word; Because they sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals. They trample the heads of the weak into the dust of the earth, and force the lowly out of the way. Son and father go to the same prostitute, profaning my holy name. Upon garments taken in pledge they recline beside any altar; And the wine of those who have been fined they drink in the house of their god. Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorites before them, who were as tall as the cedars, and as strong as the oak trees. I destroyed their fruit above, and their roots beneath. It was I who brought you up from the land of Egypt, and who led you through the desert for forty years, to occupy the land of the Amorites: I who raised up prophets among your sons, and nazirites among your young men. Is this not so, O people of Israel? says the LORD.

But you gave the nazirites wine to drink, and commanded the prophets not to prophesy. Beware, I will crush you into the ground as a wagon crushes when laden with sheaves. Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong man shall not retain his strength; The warrior shall not save his life, nor the bowman stand his ground; The swift of foot shall not escape, nor the horseman save his life. And the most stouthearted of warriors shall flee naked on that day, says the LORD. (Amos 2:6-16)

Three things mark the prophets’ preaching on these issues. The first is that everyone is responsible. Even though an individual might not take part in these injustices personally, yet their toleration for it and their own personal sin contribute to the wider societal destruction. This is an extremely important point, and it is a theology that continues in the Church today. Our sins are not just offenses against God, some other person and ourselves. No, each of our sins contributes to destroying the fabric of our world as God made it. The second mark is that the prophets always insist on the urgency of the matter. These are not issues to be discussed and discerned at leisure; they are black and white issues that must be eradicated immediately lest God destroy our land. The final thing that distinguishes the prophets’ preaching is that of high drama. No words are spared when it comes to painting the dire picture of the sins that have led to God’s displeasure, and what will come about as a result of them. The following is from the prophet Micah in which the Lord has presented the case to the people and now demands an answer from them: “O my people, what have I done to you, or how have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, from the place of slavery I released you; And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” The Church has adapted this lament into what is called the Reproaches which are traditionally sung on Good Friday. They go something like this:

My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom: you led your Savior to the cross
Holy is God Holy and strong! Holy immortal One have mercy on us!
For forty years I led you safely through the desert. I fed you with manna from heaven, and brought you to a land of plenty; but you led your Savior to the cross.
Holy is God Holy and strong! Holy immortal One have mercy on us!
What more could I have done for you? I planted you as my fairest vine, but you yielded only bitterness: when I was thirsty you gave me vinegar to drink, and you pierced your Saviour with a lance.
Holy is God Holy and strong! Holy immortal One have mercy on us!

It goes on like that for a while. Suffice it to say that if you don’t feel guilty after hearing the Reproaches, you’re just not capable of that emotion!

Before moving on to Jesus as prophet, I want to touch on one other aspect of the prophet’s life, the area of loneliness and misery. Heschel in his book says, “To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction. The mission he performs is distasteful to him and repugnant to others; no reward is promised him and no reward could temper its bitterness. The prophet bears scorn and reproach. He is stigmatized as a madman by his contemporaries, and, by some modern scholars, as abnormal (Heschel, 21).” Indeed, Jeremiah is very poignant on this point:

I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it. Yes, I hear the whisperings of many: “Terror on every side! Denounce! let us denounce him!” All those who were my friends are on the watch for any misstep of mine. “Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail, and take our vengeance on him.” (Jeremiah 20:9-10)

This takes us right back to the prophet’s call, doesn’t it? If he had been unwilling, he was still compelled to speak on behalf of the Lord. There was no turning back, or the very words would weary him by being held in and would eventually burst forth from his lips, achieving the end for which they were intended.

II. Jesus as Prophet

So now let us take a look at Jesus as prophet. Before we go there, we must acknowledge the important “transitional prophet,” St. John the Baptist. John is commonly acknowledged to be the end of the old prophecy and the beginning of the new. He preached repentance and administered a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. But he always taught that he was not the new focus, that there would be one who came after him mightier than he, whose sandal straps he was not fit to unfasten. He acknowledged at the end of his ministry that we must now look to Jesus:

Now a dispute arose between the disciples of John and a Jew 13 about ceremonial washings. So they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing and everyone is coming to him.” John answered and said, “No one can receive anything except what has been given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said (that) I am not the Messiah, but that I was sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:25-30)

When Jesus did increase, then, what was his message? Well, we now have that in a nutshell as the third luminous mystery of the rosary: The proclamation of the kingdom of God with its call to repentance. Jesus’ prophetic concern was pretty much the same as that of the prophets. He was, like them, concerned about authentic worship: worship that was from the heart, worship that did not end after the worshippers went forth in peace to love and serve the Lord, worship that translated into action on behalf of the poor and needy. He was concerned about those dispossessed, preaching that whatever we did to the very least among us was done to our Lord himself. But even there, he ups the ante, doesn’t he? He doesn’t just testify on behalf of the widow, the orphan and the resident alien; no, he goes one better and says that however we treat them is the way we treat him. Ministry to those in need is deeply personal to God, and we can see that in the way that Jesus preached. All of his actions backed up his words. He would heal and feed and care for the needy, no matter what day it was – Sabbath or not – and no matter how other people perceived his actions. In the end, of course, he was willing to die for what he preached, and willing to die for those to whom he preached and ministered. Jesus is kind of the “ultimate prophet” whose whole life, words, actions and everything, was prophecy.

Worthy of some special note is the issue that was brought up in the Gospel reading I proclaimed at the beginning of this talk. Jesus, as we know, throughout his public ministry, had an ongoing issue with the Scribes and Pharisees. These people were scrupulous about keeping the over 600 laws that bound them, and keeping them to the “t.” More than that, they were scrupulous about being sure that everyone else kept these laws also. Jesus’ issue with them was that they obsessed about the Law, but ignored its spirit. Because of this, Jesus puts them in the same class as their ancestors. Let’s hear it again:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’ Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now fill up what your ancestors measured out!

You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna? Therefore, behold, I send to you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that there may come upon you all the righteous blood shed upon earth, from the righteous blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (Matthew 23: 29-35)

Because of their own indifference to authenticity in worship, because of their own neglect of the widow, the orphan and the resident alien, they are held in just as low esteem as their ancestors, who furthered their crimes by murdering the prophets. Because the Scribes and Pharisees are no better than their ancestors, they are complicit in the murder of the prophets and liable for judgment on that crime.

The most important point on the issue of Jesus as Prophet is that his prophecy is the key to our salvation. Let’s return for a minute to the image of the “deep dark yogurt of sin and death” that I brought up earlier. Blocked, as we are, from access to God because of this chasm of sin and death, we had no hope. But, on December 25 of “Year Zero,” if you will, God sent his only Son into our world. He was born among us and walked our walk, talked our talk, and died our death. Then he rose to new life that lasts forever, completely canceling the effect of the deep, dark yogurt of sin and death, and giving us the ability to live forever with God. This is the Gospel message, friends, and the whole plan of our salvation. That Jesus was part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world from the very beginning is central to our faith. That Jesus’ prophecy was the final answer to what power would reign for all eternity – death or life – can never be disputed. Jesus is for us the ultimate prophet!

III. We Need a Prophet

This is an important point for us, brothers and sisters, because we need a prophet. Has the proliferation of inauthentic worship diminished over the years? Certainly not. How many people come once a week for barely an hour and then go and do their own thing in the parking lot, in the workplaces, schools and communities? How many people come only on Christmas and Easter and barely even immerse themselves in the Good News of Salvation? How many people cannot be bothered to miss a soccer game or softball practice or whatever activity it may be, to come to Mass and worship our God who gives us all of his time? There is no dearth of inauthentic worshippers, to say nothing of non-worshippers, is unquestionable. Who will speak to them?

What about concern for the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien? In our time they may look more like the single mother, the abused child and the homeless person, but they are all here among us today. It’s just another flavor, or better still, another development of the same poverty, isolation and marginalization. Does God care less about them than the dispossessed of old? Of course not. But how often are they cheated, dealt with as a nuisance, or simply ignored? Who will speak for them?

If you take nothing else with you from your study of the prophets, take this: you need to be that prophet. Study well the prophets of old, but then remember that you are called to be the prophet of the new. Every one of us who would be a disciple of Jesus is called to live a prophetic life of faith, hope and love. Every one of us is called to live the prophecy of Jesus by, as another of my seminary professors used to teach us, loving what Jesus loved while he was nailed to the cross, and by despising what Jesus despised and he hung there in agony. We must make it our constant care to live the way we worship, and to be advocates for the marginalized. If we don’t, we will have learned nothing from the prophets of old who cry out to us from the great cloud of witnesses. And if we don’t, we will have laid down the cross and walked away from discipleship. We are God’s prophets now, and our preaching is in the living of the Gospel. May the words of that Gospel burst forth from our lips as vehemently as the prophets of old. May the living of that Gospel take the form of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us pray.

Lord God,
your word of life gives us a new birth.
May we receive it with open hearts,
live it with joy,
and express it in love.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.
Amen.