Over the course of this past summer and now into early fall, we have had ample opportunity, in light of our Sunday readings, to reflect together on what it means to be prophetic. Hopefully you know that prophesy is not about soothsaying and/or divining the future, like the fortune-teller in the carnival tent. Most prophetic predictions have to do with the prophet simply and honestly warning about the all-too-predictable consequences of continuing in a sinful or unjust mode of behavior, both here and in eternity. It is the unenviable task of prophets, both ancient and modern, to call us back to fidelity to God’s covenant, which bids us to love God with all our heart, might, mind, and strength as well as to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, bearing in mind that everyone is my neighbor, especially the stranger who needs my help, as Jesus provocatively taught (Mark 12:30; Matt 22:37; Luke 10:25-37).
Another feature of what constitutes being prophetic is that it is not exclusively, or even mainly, an institutional function, whether in ancient Israel, or in the Church today. Sure, there are prophets who rise up within these institutions, like Jeremiah of old, who was a kohen, that is, a priest from a well-regarded family, or Archbishop Oscar Romero, but they are inherently at odds, at least in some ways, with the institution from within which they arise because of the way they challenge and provoke, as did the prophets and Christ Himself. Often their fate is the same as that of Christ and the prophets before Him: they are repressed, silenced, and even killed. It is good news for all of us that within the Church, due to the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, Max Weber’s accurately articulated human principle aside, charisma is never completely institutionalized.
In our first reading, taken from the Book of Numbers, as Moses comes down from the mountain, “some of the spirit” that God gave to the great prophet was also “bestowed” on the seventy elders, who the LORD had Moses appoint to help him govern Israel, when “the spirit came to rest on them, they prophesied” (Num. 11:25). But two of their number did not go out with the others, but remained behind in the camp, Eldad and Medad (Num. 11:26). Nonetheless, the spirit came to rest on them too; much to the dismay of those who had gone to where Moses was, and so Eldad and Medad began prophesying in the camp (Num. 11:26). No less than Joshua, who would succeed Moses as the leader of the tribes of Jacob, emphatically demanded Moses to “stop them” from prophesying (Num. 11:28). But Moses sees right through Joshua’s alarm and asks him, “Are you jealous for my sake?” Then Moses says, “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets,” saying that he wanted God to “bestow his spirit on them all” (Num. 11:29).
For those of us who are baptized and confirmed Moses’ wish is granted. God has bestowed His Holy Spirit on us. In baptism Christ called you forth and set you apart to share in His priestly, prophetic, and royal ministry. This was sealed and strengthened in confirmation. A big part of being prophetic is living in fidelity to the covenant that God established with you when you were baptized. I can think of no better description, especially given the economic state of today’s world, of what it is to be prophetic than what we hear in our second reading today from the Letter of James, which, apart from the Gospels, may well be the most challenging and provocative text in our uniquely Christian Scriptures.
When we pray in our petitions that we recognize everything we have is a gift from God and for the grace not to store it up for ourselves, but to share it so the basic needs of others are met, we are asking God to pour out His spirit on us, thus helping us live prophetically by preaching without using words and refusing to be defined according to secular, particularly political, categories and worldly logic. I don’t think it matters which side of the political divide you most identify with to be alarmed by the growing gap between the rich and the poor in our country, including the dramatic increase in the number of people living below the poverty line right here in our own community and state, which was detailed recently in an article that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune under the headline “Utah’s poverty rate climbs to 13.5% of the population” (Sept. 26, 2012), as well as the ever-increasing polarization between the global north and south, one effect of which is to cause mass migration.
Pope Paul VI, whose encyclical letter Humanae Vitae is seen by many, including me, as a prophetic document, for which he paid a great price, was also prophetic in his 1967 encyclical letter Populorum Progresso, which was called by no less than the Wall Street Journal, shortly after it was promulgated, “warmed-over Marxism,” but this encyclical, like Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, Caritas in veritate, is nothing other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ applied to modern world.
As one might easily imagine, there is an important convergence between these encyclicals.
Towards the beginning of Populorum Progresso, Pope Paul wrote, “The hungry nations of the world cry out to the peoples blessed with abundance. And the Church, cut to the quick by this cry, asks every man to hear his brother's plea and answer it lovingly” (par. 3). He goes on to pose the question asked by the sacred author of the First Letter of John, “If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him” (3:17)?
Our second reading for today uses far stronger words than those cited by Pope Paul in his encyclical. Writing to the wealthy who, in the words of Populorum Progresso, acquire and store up “surplus goods solely for [their] own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life” (par. 23), the sacred author warns: “You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter” (James 5:5). In this context Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), and more specifically His parable of the rich fool, both found in Luke’s Gospel, come to mind. Here is the parable of the rich fool:
“There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God” (Luke 12:16-21)Therefore, the pertinent question for us is not whether you built it yourself, but what you do with what you have built-up, keeping in mind not only the fact that you can’t take it with you, but that you will be judged with what you did with any largesse.
Indeed, there are many prophetic voices in our world today that are not Catholic voices, or even Christian voices. As Jesus told His disciples, who were alarmed in the same way Joshua was when they encountered someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name, “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). I think that the order of Jesus’ words here matter a great deal. Notice that He does not say, “Whoever is not for us is against us,” but, rather, “whoever is not against us is for us.” In language the inverse property of multiplication, which tells us that 2x3=6 and 3x2=6, simply does not apply.
We are prophetic when we live by the words we read from the Letter of James a few Sundays ago: “Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works” (James 2:18).