The easiest definition of a biblical prophet to understand and memorize is that of the late Fr. Bruce Vawter: the prophet is the conscience of the people.
But our sacred authors include other definitions of prophets and prophecy in their writings. Today’s Ezekiel passage contains one of the most significant. “You, son of man,” Yahweh says, “I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.”
The watchman image conveys a picture of someone out in front, ahead of everyone else, in a position to see now what others will only see later. In a scriptural environment, the prophet is someone who lives on the cutting edge of morality. As Hans Walter Wolff always reminded us, “The prophet is the person who provides us with the future implications of our present actions.” The prophet/watchman sees what most of us have yet to notice.
That’s why we frequently label as modern prophets such people as the 19th century abolitionists and suffragettes, or Dr. Martin Luther King, or even Ralph Nader. Almost everyone today appreciates the wisdom and justice of their causes. Yet during their day and age they stood almost alone. (Remember how Jesus once sarcastically remarked that people honor the tombs of the prophets their ancestors killed?)
Paul assumes a prophetic stance when, in our Romans passage, he encourages his readers, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law . . . Love never does any wrong to the neighbor, hence love is the fulfillment of the law.”
In the midst of all the dos and don’ts of the 613 laws of Moses, the Apostle reminds him community of the poignant simplicity of Jesus’ prophetic teaching. Whatever isn’t done with love, isn’t from God. No human-made laws should ever stop us from loving.
In our gospel pericope, Matthew zeroes in on the community dimension of prophecy. Though Christians are expected to surface individual prophets in ministering among them, they also must acknowledge that they, as the Body of Christ, are likewise gifted and burdened with prophecy.
As prophets, Jesus commands us to confront evil in our midst and not ignore it. Starting with individual confrontations, Christian practice eventually ends up with the whole community – the “church” – playing a role. (Of course, when Jesus, in today’s pericope, tells us to treat someone as “a Gentile or tax collector,” we can never forget the loving way in which he related to such individuals.)
This belief in the community’s prophetic power and obligation is rooted in the statement with which Matthew ends our liturgical selection. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus teaches, “there am I in their midst.” That’s why Jesus can categorically state, “Whatever you (the church) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Because of an exaggerated reliance on the hierarchical structure of our church, few Catholics ever think of themselves as the community’s watchmen or watchwomen. We hear the words about binding and loosing directed to Peter in chapter 16 and forget Jesus directs those same words to everyone here in chapter 18. It’s evident from today’s gospel that Jesus never envisioned his followers as being so morally passive, waiting patiently for some authority figure “from above” to tell them what’s right or wrong.
Maybe the most valuable thing our individual prophets are stressing today might be the prophetic ministry of the whole Christian community. Hopefully their prophetic words might eventually compel us to develop our own God-given consciences.