Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [B]

Today’s readings

When I met with Father Jim before I came here to Saint Petronille a few weeks ago, the one concern I expressed was coming back to my home parish.  I thought it might be weird, and I quoted the exact line in today’s Gospel: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.”  I asked him what he thought about that and he said he didn’t know; he’s never had to experience that himself.  But, he also assured me that you’d all be on your best behavior!  So we’ll just have to see how that goes.

But it is a valid concern, because, as I believe today’s Liturgy of the Word is saying, we are all of us called to be prophets.  When we are baptized, we are anointed with the Sacred Chrism oil, the oil whose name has the same root word as the word “Christ.”  In that anointing, we are called to be other christs to the world, we are anointed as Jesus was, priest, prophet and king.  So the mission is laid out for us on our baptism day.  As priests, we are called to sacrifice for the good of others.  As prophets, we are called to speak the truth and witness to the will of God.  As kings, we are called to reign eternally with Christ our King in the kingdom that knows no end.

Today, I want to focus, as our readings suggest, on the whole idea of us being anointed as prophets to the world.  This presents two important issues.  First, whether we like it or not, we are called to be prophets.  And second, whether we like it or not, there are prophets among us.

So first, we are called to be prophets.  And we may in fact not be thrilled about being prophets.  With good reason, I think, because a prophet’s job is not an easy one.  Prophets are called to witness to the truth, and quite often, people just don’t want to hear about the truth.  God says as much to Ezekiel in today’s first reading: “Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you.”  You know, that’s not a scriptural quotation you’ll often see on a vocation poster!  But it’s a warning we all need to hear, because we will always in our witnessing to the truth come up against those who don’t want to hear it.  You might be witnessing to the truth by taking a stand against a business practice you aren’t comfortable with.  You can bet that won’t be popular.  You might be witnessing to the truth by refusing to allow your children to participate in sports when it conflicts with coming to church on Sunday, that won’t be popular either.  Whenever we exercise our ministry as prophets, we are certain to run up against people who are hard of face and obstinate of heart, but our call is the same as Ezekiel’s: witness anyway.

And second, we need to recognize that there are prophets among us.  And that’s hard too because prophets can be a real pain.  None of us wants to be confronted when we’re straying from the right way.  None of us wants to hear the truth about ourselves or others when we’ve been blocking it out.  None of us wants to be called out of our comfort zone and have to extend ourselves to reach out in new ways or meet the needs of those we’d rather ignore.  But prophets insist that we do all those things.

It’s harder still when we know those prophets.  They might be our spouses, our parents, our children, our best friends, and because they love us they will witness the truth to us.  But how ready are we to hear and respond to that truth when we are called to it?  Wouldn’t we too want to dismiss the carpenter’s son – or daughter – the one whose parents or sisters or brothers live with us, the one we have watched grow up, the one who shares our life with us?  Who are they to be witnessing to the truth anyway?  That’s the kind of thing Jesus was dealing with in his home town.

It’s like the Procrustean bed from Greek mythology.  The mythical figure Procrustes was a son of Poseidon and a bandit from Attica, with a stronghold in the hills outside Eleusis. There, he had an iron bed into which he invited every passerby to lie down. If the guest proved too tall, he would amputate the excess length; victims who were too short were stretched on the rack until they were long enough. Nobody ever fit the bed exactly because it was secretly adjustable: Procrustes would stretch or shrink it upon sizing his victims from afar. Procrustes continued his reign of terror until he was captured by Theseus, who “fitted” Procrustes to his own bed and cut off his head and feet. And so a Procrustean bed is any kind of arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is enforced.  We might be a lot like Procrustes when we refuse to admit that people among us are prophetic, when we refuse to hear the truth from them.

And here is a very important truth, the truth that I think we are being asked to take away from today’s readings: the prophetic ministry continues among us.  There are times when we will be called to hear the prophets, and times when we will be called to be the prophets.  Neither task is an easy one: the truth is very often difficult to deal with, no matter what side of it we are on.  But honoring the truth is the only way we are going to get to be with Jesus who himself is the way, the truth and the life.  So it is the vocation of us Christian disciples to constantly seek the truth, proclaiming it when necessary, hearing and responding to it when called upon, but always to be open to it.

Ezekiel says at the beginning of today’s first reading, “As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me and set me on my feet.”  We might be ready to skip over that detail but I think we need to dwell on it a bit because it’s important.  The truth is a heavy thing, and very often can flatten us.  It might seem to crush the prophet who has to bear it or even knock the wind out of the one who has to hear it.  But it doesn’t go away.  We are given the truth, and the strength of the Spirit who picks us up and puts us on our feet.  So we prophets can depend on the strength of the Spirit to bear the news, and we hearers can depend on the grace of the Spirit to receive the news and heed its call.  The prophetic word is difficult, but our God never leaves us to bear it alone.

In our second reading, it is Saint Paul who makes the call so plain to us.  He was afflicted with that thorn in the flesh.  Maybe the thorn was the call to witness to the truth as he so often was.  It wouldn’t go away, but God did give him the grace to bear it.  And the words he heard from God are the words we prophets and hearers of the prophets need to know today: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”