Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Job of a Prophet is to be hated

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

A joke that I tell my priest friends who know Latin goes as follows:  If I ever get a dog I’ll call him ‘Anathema’ so that I can shout out regularly ‘Anathema –sit’!  The word “anathema”, which is actually Greek in origin, originally meant “an offering” or “something dedicated”, eventually came to be used as the ecclesiastical ‘curse’ or decree of excommunication used by the Church from the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century until Vatican II, to condemn erroneous or heretical teachings and those who promoted them. As harsh as this may sound, the anathema curse actually has scriptural origins and is used by St Paul against those who preach a false Gospel: “As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be ‘anathema’ (Gal 1:9).

St Paul uses such harsh language in his condemnation because he understood how utterly evil and incredibly damaging it is to the faith of the faithful to preach a false Gospel. There really is no issue more serious for a Christian. Yet so few Christians take this subject seriously. Few care in the least or bother to determine whether they are deliberately or inadvertently holding to or teaching a false or corrupted gospel. Personal preferences and sentiments often trump Truth. Ambiguity seems to be the rule of day. On the other hand, doctrinal certainty is often labelled as rigid and unbending. The irony today is that it is not those who spew heresies and false teachings from the pulpit who often get cursed in this manner, but rather, the ones who defend orthodox teaching and speak the truth who risk being thrown out of the pulpit either by an angry audience or by their more politically-correct superiors.

This was the fate of our Lord. Today’s passage follows immediately last week’s episode where our Lord after reading the passage from the Book of Isaiah was treated like the local hero. They marvelled at the wonderful things He said among them. He was one of their own, He grew up among them and they knew His background. Now He spoke with eloquence and graciousness and this “won the approval of all.” They felt proud that their town could produce such a man. He told them that the words of hope they treasured in the Scripture were being fulfilled in their hearing. He was basically telling them that “all is well,” because God has come to save the day. That wonderful warm fuzzy feeling – who could deny or reject this. Everything was going well, until our Lord began to challenge their expectations, perception and belief system.

Jesus takes up the attitude and role of a prophet and in so doing, begins to provoke His listeners. He ‘judgmentally’ tells His audience that His prophetic words will not be accepted or recognised “in his own country”, citing two examples of great prophets in the Old Testament who were also rejected by their own people. When the Lord shifted the tone of His sermon, the crowd’s response also moved from hospitality to hostility. We might well think Jesus was imprudent in the way He provoked His own relations and fellow townspeople. It is always wise to look for allies rather than make enemies. We may even be tempted to fault Him for being the cause of the people’s indignation and wanting to drag Him out of the town to murder him. Yet, later Christian teaching and preaching will imitate His method. The martyrs and confessors of the Church had to pay the price for it. One can tiptoe around diplomatically only for a short time before it leads to the point where one has to jump feet first into truth-telling.

This Gospel is like a microcosm of the whole story. As the Prologue to the Gospel of John says: “He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not.” (John 1:11). He was one of their own, and they were more than happy to go along with him for a time. How often this happens in the life of Jesus – that people follow Him and then go off in a different direction when things don’t suit, when the gospel He preaches is no longer “nice” but has a sharp painful sting to it with a big price tag. There is no problem when you tell people what they want to hear. The man whose message is ‘repent’ sets himself against his age, and will be battered mercilessly by the age whose moral tone he challenges. There is but one end for such a man…either rejection or death!

The spiritual gift of a prophet is not so much foretelling, as it is forth-telling. The prophet sees a problem and addresses it. Such was the role of the prophets in Israel. The Old Testament prophets called God’s people to repentance, revival, and renewal. They could not and would not settle for status quo. Being a prophet was never an easy calling, then or now. A prophet’s uncompromising truthfulness was both utterly confronting and utterly ego-deflating. To be prophetic is to call sin, sin. It is to say, without apology or reservation, “The Lord says ...” and sometimes, He says things which are not very comforting or pleasing to the ear, especially when He is confronting our sinfulness.  He did so, not because He was intentionally mean and wanted to hurt His listeners. St Paul was right in the second reading. The prophet is motivated by love, never by spite. Love doesn’t seek to hide the truth. Love doesn’t lie. 

A priest friend once told me that the job of a Parish Priest is to be hated. I guess this includes someone who plays the “prophet.” If he is doing his job, and doing it right, there are bound to be people who would disagree with him or eventually hate him. I’m not sure if I have the thickness of his skin to endure this. Bishop Emeritus Anthony Selvanayagam once shared how the legendary late Monsignor Aloysius gave him this piece of advice, “A bishop must have the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job and the hide of a rhinoceros.” No wonder we have so few bishops and God forbid if any of us priest ever got chosen to be one.

The truth is that whether it be a priest, or a parent, or just an ordinary Christian, our job is not to be popular. Our job is to be faithful and that’s the hardest part of our calling. The litmus test of a true Christian is best measured not by how many bouquets that have been pinned on him, but rather by how many brickbats that have been pitched at him. Prophets have been on the receiving end of mud more than medals. I’ve personally experienced this truth - the preacher who jests and jokes with his people all week will soon find that he cannot stand in his pulpit on Sunday with power to reprove, rebuke, and exhort. He may be the life of the party but it will be the death of the prophet. Popularity has killed more prophets than persecution. I understand that my role as a true pastor must not only be to feed the flock, but also to warn the flock. To turn black and white into grey doesn’t honour God, it just makes sinners feel better about themselves.

The prophet’s calling is lonely, sometimes discouraging and usually misunderstood. People will either run from a prophet or try to destroy him – only the remnant minority receives the prophet and his message with gladness. But remember this - the only reason a true prophet speaks is because he is compelled by God and moved by Love, a love that “takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth.” The prophet may not be perfect. He often isn’t. He too is broken by sin but he desires God’s people to experience God’s best and experience what he has experienced – forgiveness and mercy at the point of repentance. And if we doubt whether we would have the gumption or the “hide of a rhinoceros” to do the job, let us be reminded that we have something far greater – the promise of the Lord to make us into “a fortified city, a pillar of iron, and a wall of bronze to confront all.” He assures you: “They will fight against you but shall not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you – it is the Lord who speaks!”

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