In the earliest Christian writing we possess, I Thessalonians, Paul proclaims one of Christianity’s earliest guidelines: “Do not despise prophetic utterance!” We know from I Corinthians 14 that prophecy is the Holy Spirit’s prerequisite gift for forming a Christian community. The Apostle believes no one can be a disciple of Jesus unless he or she first surfaces, then listens to the prophets with whom the Spirit has blessed us. For our sacred authors, both in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, prophets, not authority figures, are the people through whom God communicates with us.
The problem we face is distinguishing real prophets from fake prophets. Obviously everyone who claims to speak in God’s name can’t be doing so. How do we know whom to follow, whom to ignore?
Those our ancestors in the faith discerned to be true prophets have become part of our sacred scriptures: people like the author of our first reading, Third-Isaiah, and the person referred to in our gospel passage, John the Baptizer. We need only open “the book” to come into contact with real prophets.
But how do we surface those special individuals in our present communities? We simply follow the same criteria our ancestors in the faith employed to surface our “book prophets.” Scripture scholars tell us there are six general rules for telling the realies from the fakes.
First, real prophets always take us back to the beginnings of our faith. In the case of Christian prophets, they leap frog over 1,900 years of history to remind us of Jesus’ faith, and how that faith was interpreted and passed on by his first disciples.
Second, no real prophet can profit from prophesying. Who would pay the salary for someone who plays the role of conscience in our lives?
Third, not only can’t real prophets make a living plying their trade, they always suffer for conveying God’s word. Remember how Jesus, the prophet, reminded his gospel followers that few prophets died with their sandals off. The vast majority of “good folk” don’t cry when real prophets meet their demise. They frequently help bring it about.
Fourth, those who carry out the real prophet’s vision will also suffer. No one gets a free pass.
Fifth, down deep we know who the real prophets are. But because of #4, we conveniently put ourselves in a state of denial.
Sixth, real prophets confuse people. Their habit of taking us back to the beginnings of faith leads us to question how others have presented the faith to us. Believing was far simpler when we bought into the “party line.” At least in the beginning of listening to prophets, we don’t know what or whom to believe.
During a radio interview I conducted years ago I asked Carroll Stuhlmueller for a list of modern prophets. As one of the world’s experts on prophecy, he quickly mentioned Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Ralph Nader. Then he said, “But of course I have my own private list of prophets that I share with no one, not even you, Roger. If it ever became public I’d be banned from every pulpit in every Catholic church for the rest of my life!”
Maybe Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel hit on something when they wrote, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, tenement halls.”
Which prophets have made it into “your book?”