If prophets just went around predicting the future, today’s first and third readings wouldn’t make sense. I presume no one’s ever put a contract out on those persons who, at the end of each year, confidently tell us what to expect during the next year. Though such people are almost always wrong, they’re harmless.
Real prophets are dangerous. Bruce Vawter called them the “conscience of the people.” The great Hans Walter Wolff singled them out as “those in our midst who point out the future implications of our present actions.” No matter which definition we employ, most of us would rather live without prophets pestering us.
Yet prophets are the normal biblical way God informs God’s people of God’s will. Long before the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures came into existence, prophets were in the midst of God’s people informing them of God’s will. Long before anyone came up with the idea of an authority structure and a magisterium to guide us on our moral way, prophets were entrusted with that task. Paul couldn’t conceive of an authentic Christian community existing without prophets. In the verse which immediately follows today’s I Corinthians pericope - a verse we never hear in any liturgical reading - the Apostle states, “Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” Anyone who knows the bare minimum of biblical faith knows prophets are an essential element of that faith.
Of course, one of the five rules for distinguishing real prophets from false prophets revolves around the real prophets’ knack of reminding people about the beginnings of their faith. But because many of us prefer to stand pat in the oft-watered-down and misdirected expressions of faith we learned as children, we resist any attempt to learn our faith’s original essentials. That leads us to another characteristic of real prophets: they suffer for simply reminding us how our faith began.
Trying to avoid a breach of promise lawsuit, Yahweh makes certain Jeremiah knows from the very beginning about his future suffering. “Gird your loins; stand up and tell them all I command you. Be not crushed on their account. . . . They (Judah’s kings, princes, priests and people) will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says Yahweh.”
There’s just one problem: as we know from chapters 10-20, Yahweh’s very slow in delivering Jeremiah from being “crushed” by those who benefit from holding onto the status quo. The prophet constantly suffers for delivering Yahweh’s oracles.
Luke’s prophetic Jesus encounters the same resistance when he reminds his hometown audience that Yahweh isn’t just Israel’s God. Both the widow in Zarephata and Namam the Syrian are Gentiles. Yet Yahweh takes care of them at the same time Jewish widows and lepers abound. To say the town’s former carpenter barely escapes the pious congregation’s wrath with his life is an understatement.
That’s why it’s important to zero in on our I Corinthians passage. In the middle of talking about all the gifts each member of his community has received from the Holy Spirit, Paul reminds them that no matter how important and useful the gift, it’s worth nothing if it isn’t exercised with love. “If I do not have love,” he writes, “I am nothing.”
Those who preach God’s love for everyone aren’t always accepted in a culture in which many believe some people deserve that love more than others. See what happens when you mention that you feel better following a car sporting a “God Bless All People” bumper sticker than one which just reads “God Bless America.” Certain people might be a little touchy about that.