Hans Walter Wolff’s famous definition of a prophet is brief, but to the point: “The prophet is that person in the community who provides us with the future implications of our present actions.”
His definition comes to life in today’s three readings.
One need only go a few lines into Luke’s well-known story of Lazarus and the rich man to uncover Wolff’s insight. The latter’s treatment of Lazarus creates no big problem for him during his lifetime; the beggar is just a minor irritation in an otherwise productive life. Yet the future implications of the rich man’s ignoring Lazarus are devastating. The tables are turned. Abraham informs the man whose wealth and power have vanished, “Remember that you received what was good during your lifetime; while Lazarus likewise received what was bad, but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.”
The author of I Timothy clearly points to the future his readers should be creating. “Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called.... “But in order to achieve that eternal life, they must “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness” right here and now. The author’s ideal future is the result of living correctly in a real present.
But often those biblical “future implications” aren’t as black and white as they are for Luke and the Timothy author. No prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance, knows anything of an eternal life as we know it. That’s why none of them ever mention heaven/hell implications of following, or not following their words. They only warn of things which will happen here and now, during their audience’s lifetime, either to the persons they address or to others whose lives they touch.
Amos reminds the wealthy in 8 century BCE Israel that they’re committing an egregious sin: complacency. “Woe to the complacent,” he states. “Lying on beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall!”
In our classes on Amos, Wolff carefully explained why the prophet nails his audience for eating “calves from the stall.” Those who raised cattle in stalls instead of grazing them in the field had to feed them grain; the very grain the poor would have been overjoyed to eat. But because the wealthy preferred the more tasty meat stall-fed cattle provided, the needs of the poor weren’t considered, much less met.
“Improvising to the music of the harp,” Amos continues, “like David, they devise their own accompaniment. They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils.”
Then comes the kicker: “Yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph (Israel)!” They don’t even notice the effects of their lavish lifestyle. It’s destroying the country, leading to its eventual destruction.
Years ago I invited a Maryknoll missionary friend to speak to one of my high school religion classes. It didn’t take him long to alienate almost all my students. He simply asked how much they’d paid for the transistor radios sticking out of some of their backpacks. When they told him how inexpensive they were, he quickly informed them that his Hong Kong parishioners were receiving starvation wages for assembling those very radios. Though my students were amazed they were participating in a huge injustice, no one offered to pay more for his or her radio so that the Hong Kong parishioners could receive a living wage.
Amos’ listeners weren’t the last complacent people in history.