Jesus Revives the Prophetic Agenda
(Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30)
Introduction to Mass
The readings this Sunday - especially the first reading and the gospel passage - draw our attention to the prophetic aspect of the Christian faith. The first reading describes the way that Jeremiah realised his vocation or his calling to be a prophet. Then, in the gospel passage, Saint Luke show Jesus taking on the identity and the role of the Old Testament prophets, committing himself to the same kind of concerns and priorities that they had raised, hundreds of years before him.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
The first reading this Sunday is a passage from the first chapter of the book of Jeremiah, and it described the struggle Jeremiah went through in coming to terms with his vocation as a prophet.
When we look at the opening chapters of some of the other books of the prophets, we find that many of them went through similar struggles before they finally accepted the role that God was calling them to.
And whatever else that tells us about them, it tells us, I think, that the first thing most of the prophets had in common with each other was that they were men who had a particularly intense awareness of the reality of God, or the presence of God.
They were men who felt a need to withdraw or to separate themselves from ordinary society, so as to spend more time in prayer and meditation, making closer contact with God, increasing their knowledge of God and sharing more deeply in his life.
And like a lot of people who are quiet and withdrawn and who don't speak very much, the prophets were men who, when they did speak, had something important and significant to say, something powerful and worth listening to.
The word 'prophet' means, someone who speaks out, and men like Jeremiah and Amos and Elijah would emerge from their prayerful, reflective silence to deliver a message from God - to 'speak out' on God's behalf. This was the essence of their vocation: to announce God's message to their community, often as it turned out, in rather critical and accusatory language, which of course aroused hostility and opposition.
What kind of unpopular message was it that the prophets found themselves having to deliver? Usually there were two main aspects.
Many times during their long history the Chosen People gave into the temptation to mix elements of the pagan religions into their own faith and to offer worship to the pagan gods. The prophets called that idolatry, and they spoke out angrily against it. They accused the people of abandoning their faith in the one, true God.
So one aspect of the prophets’ role was that they were the guardians of the true faith. They protected the integrity of the faith, and they constantly called the Chosen People back to their founding principles, back to their original Covenant with God.
The second aspect of the prophetic agenda is a profound commitment to social justice, as we would describe it now. The prophets denounced injustice and exploitation and, again, called the people back to the terms of their Covenant with God. According to the Covenant the poor and the weak had to be protected and looked-after, not taken advantage of.
It was no good - they said - giving God a lot of ostentatious worship and performing a lot of showy religious duties, and then going out and cheating people and oppressing the poor. That was making a mockery of genuine religion.
Not surprisingly, it was this aspect of their preaching that often set the prophets on a collision course with the rich and powerful sections of society. Sometimes - as in Jeremiah's case - it involved having to stand up even to the King and the political establishment, something that caused Jeremiah a lot of suffering and a lot of anguish.
Now, if we go from the Old Testament to the gospels, we find that the gospel writers present Jesus as someone who revives the vocation and the agenda of the prophets.
Jesus is also someone who has an intense devotion to God and a uniquely close relationship with God. He is also someone who is set apart, someone who spends a lot of time alone, in silent prayer and meditation.
Jesus was someone who emerged from his frequent periods of prayer and solitude to preach to the people in an urgent and passionate way about God's rule, or God's Kingdom.
And like the prophets, Jesus is someone who identifies with the poor and the weak. The Kingdom that he preached about belongs first of all to the humble and powerless people, he says, the people who don't count for much.
And the implications of that message put Jesus on a collision course with the influential sections of his society - but also with large sections of the ordinary population, because the values of the Kingdom weren't the majority values and Jesus wasn't a political demagogue trying to create a following for himself. In Saint Luke's gospel Jesus anticipates all this at the outset of his mission. 'A prophet is never accepted in his own country.' he says.
Luke's purpose in writing about this episode is to tell us something about Jesus' identity: he was following in the footsteps of the prophets. But like all the gospel stories, there's also meant to be a lesson for us, as well. Saint Luke wants his readers to recognise that the person, or the community, that wants to embrace Christ also has to embrace Christ's prophetic agenda.
Like him, we all need to cultivate prayer and reflection. We need to make sure we find times of silence and solitude to deepen our awareness of God and deepen our acquaintance with him.
Often, it seems, these are the things that modern religion lacks. Present-day religion is chatty and sociable and "welcoming" all right, but often that means it's also very shallow and detached from the message of the gospel as Jesus actually preached it. Genuine knowledge of God and spiritual progress usually start to take shape when we get rid of our tendency to go chattering and bustling around.
Like the prophets the Christian community needs to protect the integrity of its faith and not mix it up with pagan elements.
Our Christian values, our outlook on life, our ideas of where happiness lies, are very different from those of the culture that we live in. Being a prophetic Church would means preserving our distinctive Christian vision on the one hand, and taking a critical attitude to all the aspects of our culture that prevent people from discovering their real vocation, to live in communion with God.
And then of course, the Christian community needs to be a force for justice in society it belongs to. A Church which makes a priority of defending the rights of the poor, and denouncing the sins of the rich, would be acting as a spokesman for God, the way the prophets did, and it would have to be prepared to suffer the consequences that prophets suffered for their outspokenness against greed and lies, in their time.
Applying palliatives, organising relief work, tending the victims of poverty will of course always be regarded as a legitimate Christian activity by the beneficiaries of today's global market economy; its when the Church identifies the causes of poverty and lends itself to campaigns of protest and resistance that the defenders of wealth start to complain about religious people straying into areas that don't concern them.
So those, very briefly, are some of the lessons that I found in the readings for this Sunday's Mass. St. Luke shows Jesus assuming the vocation of the prophets before him, and setting the agenda for the community of his followers after him.