Our sacred authors presume no one can live his or her faith alone. Believers need other believers to support and encourage them to live that faith.
During a recent class on Amos, one of my students asked a very pertinent question. Presuming this 8th century BCE shepherd/prophet was illiterate, she wanted to know how he could have written the nine chapters of oracles contained in “his” book. The answer is rather simple, but its implications are far-reaching.
As far as we can tell, biblical prophets never actually wrote any of the prophecies we attribute to them. They delivered them orally, not in written form. The prophets’ disciples were the ones who eventually put their mentors’ words into the format we have today. That means no matter how rejected and alone these men and women were, they still could count on a small handful of friends who not only supported them, but also made certain their words would be appreciated by future generations.
All the writings contained in our Hebrew and Christian Scriptures eventually became a support to others of faith, assuring them they were not alone in their following of Yahweh and Jesus.
We hear the consequences of trying to live one’s faith alone in today’s gospel. “John in prison heard about the works Christ performed and sent a message through his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you “He who is to come” or do we look for another?” The isolation of prison starts Matthew’s John the Baptist on the road to doubting his own mission of faith.
Though Jesus assures John’s disciples about his own ministry, we’re still haunted by the fact that even someone as committed as the Baptizer could find Jesus a “stumbling block.” Being alone over a long period of time can easily lead someone to develop a devastating mind-set.
That’s why Isaiah’s words are so important today. “Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those that are frightened; ‘Be strong, fear not! Here is your God . . . .’ No matter how firmly we’re convinced that one day “the eyes of the blind (will) be opened, the ears of the deaf (will) be cleared, the lame (will) leap like a stag (and) the tongues of the dumb will sing,” it’s easy to take our eyes off the prize when we think no one else shares our vision.
We know from our gospels that the thrust of Jesus’ preaching revolves around his belief that “the reign of God is close at hand:” that God is working effectively in our lives right here and now. How long do you think we could keep such faith at the center of our lives if we were the only one on earth who had such a conviction?
Even James pleads for patience from his readers. He believes only those who “hang in there” will bring about the kind of world their faith envisions. Considering what I mentioned above, it’s interesting which models of persistence he offers: “Take the prophets who spoke in the name of Yahweh.” Of course, Scripture scholars tell us even the classic Jewish prophets needed to be supported in their faith.
Today of all days, it’s important we fall back on the context in which we’re hearing these three readings proclaimed: the Eucharist. As liturgical composer Grayson Warren Brown pointed out during last summer’s Chicago Celebration Conference, “The church and its liturgy became necessary not to get us to heaven, but to get us through life.” It’s in the Eucharist that our ancestors in the faith were most encouraged to make their faith part of their everyday lives. As we listen to these readings today, look around. Our fellow-believers are part of the force keeping us believing. We’re not alone.