AUGUST 18, 2013: TWENTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
I'd rather Jesus hadn't said the things in today's gospel pericope. I have enough trouble carrying through on the late Dale Carnegie's advice to make friends and influence people without looking forward to turning people against one another and especially against me. There are some aspects of being another Christ which aren't too enjoyable. Yet we can never forget that when the gospel Jesus asks his followers about the buzz surrounding his ministry, they respond, "People are saying you're a prophet." That answer presumes any imitator of Jesus is also expected to imitate the prophetic parts of his personality.
Biblical prophets aren't simply predictors of the future. As the great Hans Walter Wolff always reminded his students, "A prophet is the person in the community who reminds us of the future implications of our present actions." Or as Bruce Vawter stressed in his well-known book on the subject, a prophet is the "conscience of the people."
Both scholars also emphasized that one of the traditional five ways of distinguishing a real prophet from his or her fake counterpart is to find out which of the two is suffering. Not only can't authentic prophets profit from prophesying, they also have to endure persecution for the word of God they proclaim.
Jeremiah provides us with a classic example in today's first reading. The prophet was convinced that the Judaism of his day and age was so corrupt that the only way true faith could be restored was to totally destroy the existing institution and start from scratch. He relied on the Babylonian army to accomplish the first step in this process. No wonder he was accused of "demoralizing the soldiers ... and all the people." He was telling them to stop defending Jerusalem and surrender to their besieging enemies.
If Ebed-melech hadn't pleaded his case, Jeremiah would certainly have died in the cistern, following in the suffering footsteps of many of his prophetic predecessors.
But, as the unknown author of Hebrews reminds his readers, Jesus, the prophet, also had to endure not only the cross, but also opposition from sinners. He didn't accomplish what he did for us without suffering.
I presume that's why Jesus also expected his disciples to imitate his pyromaniac lifestyle. "Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth?" the great peacemaker asks. "No, I tell you, but rather division." It seems obvious to the historical Jesus that real peace can only be truly accomplished by pointing out the hurtful divisions among people, not by pretending they don't exist.
In some ways, Luke's Jesus is simply referring to what many in the gospel community have already experienced. Once they gave themselves over to becoming other Christs, tensions began to surface among their families and friends. Imitating the prophetic aspect of Jesus created problems.
More than anything else, the prophetic dimension of the risen Christ revolves around making people, not rules and regulations, the center of our lives. More than 500 years before, Jeremiah got into trouble for zeroing in on the same aspect of faith. God's true, prophetic word is that relations are always more important than institutions and the laws the institutions create and expect us to obey. Through the centuries, those who have engaged in relational ministries have traditionally had problems with the "good folk" and the organizations they've created.
Of course, another trademark of real prophets is that they always take us back to the beginnings of our faith, to a time when there were no formal religious structures, when it was just our faith-ancestors relating with God and one another; the kind of world God still expects us to create, in spite of institutions.