One of the reasons organized religion traditionally persecutes real prophets and rewards fake prophets revolves around the authentic prophets' disturbing habit of taking us back to the beginnings of our faith. All organizations eventually develop shortcuts, loopholes and practices which either cause or enable them to veer from their founder's original charism.
We've all heard about civics class experiments in which a student read several items of our Constitution's Bill of Rights to people waiting at a bus stop and asked their opinion about them. Many thought they comprised the radical agenda of some subversive, revolutionary, anti-American movement. Only a few recognized them as part of the core document of our democracy.
Prophets find themselves in a similar situation. Though they're the most conservative force in society, they're so radically conservative that almost everyone classifies them as flaming liberals. We're simply not comfortable with those who want to conserve what is at the core of our faith.
Today's gospel pericope presents us with a classic example of what happens when a prophet tries to take people back to the beginnings of their faith.
In this case, Jesus confronts the false idea that Yahweh only works through specially designated individuals. In the estimate of those who knew him as a kid in Nazareth, he didn't fit into the prophetic category. He responds to their limiting of God's actions by reminding them of how Yahweh, centuries before, had worked not only through, but also on behalf of non-Jews.
The crowd's reaction is prophetically predictable. "Filled with fury, they rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill . . . to hurl him down headlong." Though Jesus escapes, the lesson is clear. "We don't want to be taken back that far into our faith. We're comfortable just where we are."
Jeremiah understood this situation all too well. When, toward the end of his life, he composed the famous "call narrative" which begins the collection of his oracles, he was certain of two things. First, Yahweh had called him to his prophetic ministry; second, no matter what he had to suffer in carrying it out, Yahweh would be with him, guaranteeing he was speaking the truth. No matter the opposition, Jeremiah had no choice but to deliver Yahweh's word, bringing people back to the beginnings of Judaism.
Given today's first and third readings, it's significant that Paul's classic I Corinthians chapter 13 comprises our second reading. No passage in the Christian Scriptures roots us better in the fundamentals of Christian faith than this pericope on love.
We must remember that Paul never intended this chapter to be read, studied or memorized independent of the preceding and following chapters. All three deal with the Spirit's gifts and how they're employed in the community. Should anyone use his or her gift outside the context of love, it's worthless. I'm certain had Paul known of Vice-President John Nance Garner's famous appraisal of his office - "It ain't even worth a warm bucket of spit!" - he would have found a place for it in this chapter. Unless all our actions are motivated and accompanied by love, they fall into Garner's category.
But because love always involves a death, it's easy to forget its place at the heart of our faith. Comfortable substituting other things for it in the practice of that faith, we think only "radical" Christians are actually motivated by love. Yet as our Christian prophets tell us, love is the only force that can change how we relate to others.
For instance, once we love those around us, all competition with them ends. Perhaps if we stop persecuting the prophets God has put in our midst and begin listening to them, we might one day put the Fellowship of Christian Athletes into the same category as the Fellowship of Christian Slave Owners.