Breath of the Spirit: The Gift and Burden of Prophecy
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July 4th, 2021: The Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Psalm 123:1-2, 2, 3-4
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
A Reflection by Marianne Seggerman
The readings for this week are unusually consistent. They are all about prophets – Old Testament, New Testament and in the middle, Jesus’ own prophetic mission.
The first thing to know about the Old Testament prophets is that they weren’t. Prophets, that is. Amos even exclaims that he is only a shepherd. A prophet was an occupation, a role. There was even a guild for prophets. To get an idea of what a prophet in the time before Christ was like I wonder if any of the readers are acquainted with the mid to late 20th century French comic book series Astérix le Galois? (Click here to find out more about the comic book series.) One of the recurring characters was the druid, Getafix. Ignore for a moment that he had a magic potion which kept the villagers strong enough to withstand Roman occupation. Pre-industrial societies often identified individuals who had a closer connection than their neighbors to a higher power or spiritual world. Getafix is an example of this. Perhaps many of the ancient prophets were chosen by this same, grassroots process. I don’t know the job description for a prophet in Judea/Israel in the centuries before Christ, but if they went around telling people how sinful they were (like Ezekiel does in this Sunday’s first reading) it wouldn’t do much for job security. It is no wonder that the prophets were so often under attack. This week’s gospel asserts that no prophet is honored in their native place. With the Old Testament, no prophet was recognized in their lifetime. However, by the time of Jesus the prophets are acknowledged and honored by the people of Judea/Israel – perhaps because the faithful of that day [wrongly] believed the prophets’ message of needing to turn away from sin and toward God didn’t apply to them. It is always easier to admire a prophet when they are not being prophetic to you!
Fellow members of the now-defunct New Haven Dignity chapter may recall I have an issue with Paul. My beef stems from the mischief wrought by the attitudes expressed by some of Paul’s pronouncements. I get it – he travelled all around the Mediterranean sending letters to the faith communities he found [or founded] – letters which became the basis for much of the policy and practice of the Catholic faith. That’s just the point – he travelled. He encountered cities with cultures quite different than what he knew back in Jerusalem (he was born in Tarsus, but raised in Jerusalem) – and his writings reflect the cultural shock he must have felt. Paul made it all the way to Rome, which at its height was a boisterous and vibrant city, the greatest city of the Roman world. Paul was the original born-again Christian, and I expect he found a lot in Rome not to like. In Rome at the time there seems to have been a temple to a different god on every corner. Married women had a considerable amount of freedom and opportunity – possibly even more than their equivalent in mid 20th century America. They may have had no part in the political life, but they did have a public role in the world of commerce. They owned and ran businesses. In Corinth, Paul must have been appalled by temple prostitution– lumping it with thievery and idolatry in one of the so-called clobber passages. (For more context on these passages, often construed as anti-LGBTQ+, click here.) I remember hearing that Paul may not have written every Bible passage attributed to him, I am sure he wrote this one: begging (unsuccessfully) that the “thorn in the flesh” given to him by an angel of Satan might be taken away. So I ask the question so often asked about those chosen by God to deliver the prophetic message – why him?
I have three takeaways from today’s gospel reading. The first is that even with his effectiveness diminished by the lack of faith in his native place Jesus is still able to cure a few people. How much more then would Jesus have been able to do in a community that had faith? We don’t really know just how much the “signs and wonders” alluded to in other texts (see John 21:25), but not detailed, amounted to.
The second takeaway is this: I must have heard this gospel nearly 20 times since Vatican II and on more than one sermon the priest has tied himself in theological knots trying to explain away the existence of Jesus’ siblings, bringing in historical and sociological context for this passage – something rarely if ever done from the pulpit of a Catholic Church in my experience. Joseph was still alive 12 years after the birth of his [step?] son, when the young Jesus got left behind and dazzled the elders in the temple. Why would the couple not have been fruitful and multiplied during the intervening years? And what does it say about the Catholic church’s approach to sex that it has remained so adamantly against it?
The third thing that got my attention was referring to Jesus as son of Mary. There are genealogies scattered throughout scripture and to the best of my recollection they almost exclusively deal with the male line – only mentioning the mother in passing. Even in the first chapter of Matthew, the genealogy ends with Joseph, not Mary. I am not sure what it all means but perhaps it points us toward the prophetic female voices that have been lost over the centuries not for their lack of an intimate connection to God, but only because the patriarchies of those times could not bear to recognize them.
It’s not the just official prophets whose messages are relevant and heeded in these times - nor a druid from [un] Roman occupied Gaul. A prophet’s job is not to tell their people what God plans to do. The prophets that people have paid attention to – now and for all times – have quite a different message, regardless of their job description. Their message is to let us know what God wants and expects of us. They also offer us, in the process, a clearer picture of who God is. They did this despite considerable opposition – hence Paul’s expression of despair and anguish in the second reading – and rank disbelief like that experienced by Jesus in the Gospel by those who could see him only as a carpenter or carpenter’s son. In our own way, each of us is called to this same prophetic mission – to clarify for others who God is (and what Love looks like) not only with our words, but even more so with our actions, by the way we care for those around us. This is our prophetic mission, to reveal God’s presence in our own bodies, whether or not others have the capacity to recognize it.
Marianne Seggerman joined the chapter of Dignity New Haven around 30 years ago. That chapter is no longer, alas, but she continues to attend the biannual conference. In her day job she is a computer programmer living (and for the moment working) in Westport, Connecticut. She is in a long-term relationship with a person raised Jewish who converted to the Mormon faith.