Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Prophecy: Truth and the Word

Fourteenth Ordinary Sunday Year B

Just the other day, I was talking to a close friend of how I’ve often held back in terms of preaching and speaking the truth. I cited several logical and seemingly reasonable justifications for my actions.
First Reason – People are generally not ready for the truth as much as they clamour for it. Quite often, the truth will be met with denial, incredulity and even outright opposition.
Second Reason – Speaking the truth will get others into trouble. You risk exposing their mistakes. So suppressing the truth is an act of charity and provides them with some protection against ridicule.
Third Reason – Speaking the truth will invite the wrath of the powers that be. Sometimes, it is prudent to tip toe around the truth and to confine ourselves to the official truth or what is deemed acceptable. In such a situation, it is better to hold back the truth in the long run, than to risk a premature end to your short-lived project.

The above reasons seemed well thought through and even appear to transcend self-interest yet they are undeniably clever ways of self-deception. They conceal a basic instinct for self-survival. What lies behind the veiled argument is a scared individual frightened that his actions will risk opposition, insults, and rejection. For the sake of maintaining good ties and to avoid soiling friendships, something has to give - truth must ultimately be compromised.

My friend reminded me that when I choose to hold back the truth, I do so at the risk of not just lying to my congregation, but also risk leaving them incarcerated in the prison of ignorance surrounded by half-truths and lies. When I choose to abdicate my responsibility to preach the Word of God, Christ who is the Truth, the Way and Life and instead substitute Him with some easy, non-threatening, and safe message, then I risk reinventing not only the message but the Christian faith. It seems much easier to transform the right into the wrong and the wrong into the right when it best suits us or when it’s the most popular thing to do. But William Penn had this to say as a stern reminder, “Right is right, even if everyone is against it, and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it."

This week we celebrate Bible Sunday. It is an opportunity not only to celebrate the Word of God as revealed to man, but also man’s response or rather ensuing responsibility thereto. There is an inseparable bond between the Word spoken by God and that which is heard by man. Man hears the Word and is transformed – he then becomes the medium by which the Word is made known to the world. He is a servant of the Word, not its master. But the integrity of this bond is damaged when we choose to alter the meaning of the Word which we are bound to transmit. Thus, compromising the truth of the message reduces the Word of God into a message which is merely the sum of the words of men.

Today’s readings remind us that the prophetic ministry of the Word of God need not be something which is necessarily popular or easy. Our job is not to make everyone like us.  Our job or rather our responsibility is to use all our gifts and talents to make God present.  Our prophetic role is to deliver the message of God even when no one is prepared to listen. In the first reading, God told Ezekiel that even if the people did not like his message from God, after hearing Ezekiel they would know there had been a prophet with them.  When Jesus tried to teach in his hometown, no one would listen.  When Paul preached some people did not like what he said and made trouble for him.  The same is true for us.  We are called to fidelity in preaching the Word of God. We are called to be true to its message. We are called to be faithful to the source of that Word. We do so with the knowledge that we may have to risk everything, even fame, friendship and popularity.

Faced with such a daunting and unpopular task, how could we even begin to undertake this heavy responsibility of being story-tellers of the story of God to an audience who may not like what they hear? All three readings provide us with sufficient grounding for our prophetic ministry.

The ministry of proclaiming the Word of God does not proceed from some personal conviction or set of abilities. It proceeds from the call of God. God calls and sends us out as his prophets. God pours his Spirit into us and places his words in our mouth. This has absolutely nothing to do with personal capacity or capabilities, with personal merit or worth. The personal condition or disposition of the listeners also do not affect the transmission of the Word, at least from the point of the election of the prophet. In fact, God does not hide the truth about the difficulty of this task. We will have to contend with an audience that suffers from hardness of heart and obstinacy, one which constantly rebels against God. All these point to the inner dynamism or power of the Word of God.  We often make so much about the human factor – having the right candidate, the most fertile environment, the perfect opportunity. The first reading reminds us that we should never discount the power of the Word of God which is able to overcome all these limitations and obstacles.

St Paul reminds us that the life of a Christian is supremely about grace. A Christian may not be the most eloquent or gifted person in the world, he may suffer from all forms of weaknesses and limitations. He stands humiliated and shamed by his shortcomings. And yet in spite of all these factors which the world perceive as the perfect formulae for failure and disaster, God’s grace saves the day.  This is the conviction of St. Paul in today’s second reading. He is able to speak so eloquently only because of his confidence in God and not in himself. He believes that God speaks to him in this way: “My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness.” And so he declares: “that is why I am quite content with my weaknesses, and with insults, hardships, persecutions, and the agonies I go through for Christ’s sake. For it is when I am weak that I am strong.”

How then do we know that we are authentically being prophetic and not just acting upon self-righteous delusions? The answer lies in the gospel. Jesus himself was rejected by his own countrymen and relations when he chose to play the prophet instead of the puppet. Both, the prophet and his message are often unpopular. This is because the Word of God, although often offering consolation and healing, can equally come across as a hard message and a painful truth. People do not like to hear the truth about themselves especially when the truth calls for change. We need to speak the truth and not just that which is popular.

As a priest, I’m often tempted to dull the edge of the message, soften the blow of the challenge, restate the difficult message in a more popularly acceptable manner. This guarantees personal survival and popular acceptance but obviously presents a hollow version of Christianity, and a message that is far from the Word of God. This may be the kind of prophet or priest that the people want, but is it the kind of prophet the people need? Let us therefore pray for strong prophets, faithful prophets, prophets willing to suffer weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and agonies for the sake of Christ; Prophets who are prepared to challenge our ignorance, our stubbornness, our sinfulness; Prophets who are willing to help us see that when we are weak, then we are truly strong; Prophets who are able to help us recognise that God’s grace is sufficient in all situations and at all times. Each of us is called to be this kind of prophet. So, let’s be prophets of God rather than politicians who rake up points for ourselves.

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