Listening to the Prophets, Then and Now

The liturgical readings of January

This month’s most important celebration is Epiphany, so significant that the feast was observed long before anyone thought of commemorating Jesus’ birth. Originally, Epiphany was a triple celebration, reflecting on the Magi, Jesus’ baptism and the wedding feast at Cana, each incident a “coming out” for Jesus — an event in which people look at him as being unique from all others.

The most disturbing of these three Gospel narratives — the Magi story — only makes sense when heard against the background of the church’s switch from a Jewish to a Gentile community, one of three sea changes that totally transformed Christianity during its first 150 years. (The other two: the shift from a short to a long-term faith and from a Semitic to a Greek frame of mind.)

The Magi passage is found just in Matthew’s Gospel, the only one written for those who had the biggest problem with this change: Jewish-Christians. Most of the evangelist’s readers had accepted the faith of Jesus presuming only Jews could take such a step. Yet, as time goes on, they see more and more non-Jews becoming other Christs, without first converting to Judaism.

One of the leaders of this newfangled practice is Paul of Tarsus, whose disciple reminds the Ephesians about a recently revealed mystery: “Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise to Christ Jesus through the good news.” In other words, non-Jews have just as much right to be Christians as Jews.

Though Third-Isaiah speaks about “nations (Gentiles) walking by Yahweh’s light and kings by Yahweh’s shining radiance,” the prophet presumes they do this only after converting to Judaism. As does the author of Psalm 72 when he or she pens the lyrics, “All kings shall pay him (Yahweh) homage, all nations shall serve him.”

But Matthew, agreeing with Paul’s theology that we follow the risen, not the historical Jesus, has these uncircumcised, pagan, Gentile astrologers actually find the “newborn king of the Jews” while a representative of Judaism, Herod, not only refuses to join their search, he eventually attempts to kill the child. A biting message for a Jewish community struggling with Gentile membership. One can never be certain how God is going to work and through whom God is going to work.

He/she can even work through a woman! Mary is a classic example.

Paul rarely mentions anything about the historical Jesus. Yet, in the Galatians passage for the first day of the year, he reminds his community: “God sent his son, born of a woman.” Mary plays an essential role in our becoming “children and heirs of God.” We would not be where we are as Christians without her help. Not only that, but she provides a classic example of what good Christians should be doing. “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Luke’s definition of the perfect disciple is someone who listens to God’s word and carries it out. No one does that better in his Gospel than Mary.

It is good to note that all blessings in the Hebrew Scriptures are fertility blessings, including those in Numbers 6 and Psalm 67. Ancient Israelites always wanted more children, more crops, more cattle and more sheep. Receiving these things was a blessing from Yahweh.

Yet. Mary experiences God’s blessing on another level than just physical fertility. She is actually blessed by God to cooperate with the Divine to save the world. Though I presume all of us would also like to do this, how do we pull it off?

The author of 1 Samuel, like Luke’s Mary, is convinced that the first step in that process is to listen. After the young boy Samuel and Eli go through a few rounds of an “Abbot and Costello routine,” the old priest realizes Yahweh is calling Samuel, prompting him to give the best biblical advice anyone can provide in such a situation. When it happens, simply respond, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

I really cannot remember much emphasis being put on listening in my Catholic education. Of course, we were expected to listen to what the church authorities were saying, but not to God, and certainly not to the risen Jesus in our midst. Since we were taught to regard the pope as the “vicar of Christ,” we only had to pay attention to papal decrees and sermons — or to the bishops who echoed them — to fulfill our obligation to listen.

We conveniently forget that the Magi didn’t find Jesus because they read a collection of papal encyclicals while Herod didn’t.  Nor did Eli tell Samuel to log onto the Vatican website. Neither was Mary an expert in the decrees of ecumenical councils. The author of Psalm 40 hits the faith nail on the head: “Sacrifice or offering you wished not, but ears open to obedience you gave me.” It is easy to put religious incidentals at the center of our faith, while completely ignoring the essential commitment to listen.

For Christians, the obvious first step in listening is to actually make a decision to follow Jesus. Like Andrew and Simon at the beginning of John’s Gospel, we have to find out where Jesus is “staying,” or, in modern terms, where he is “coming from.” Being another Christ implies we have the same mentality as the first Christ.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that once we take that crucial step, we actually morph into the body of Christ. Among other things, our morality changes; we look at people, situations, and even our physical bodies through different eyes. Our value systems will never be the same. The apostle Paul will later warn the Corinthians: “The

world in its present form is passing away.” People of faith had best be prepared for its turning upside down.

The problem for many is that such a conversion also demands we look at God through different eyes. As the popular 1960s song stated, some people — of little faith — are only comfortable with the good old plastic Jesus on their car’s dashboard. We hesitate to imitate what Jesus’ first four disciples do in Mark’s Gospel: With no preconceived notions about who he is, they simply “follow him.”

When that happens, we discover that an essential element in listening is finding out who we actually are. There is no one lasting description of such a unique personality. Just when we reach the point of being comfortable with one, it changes. The authors of Jonah discovered this aspect of Yahweh’s personality centuries before Jesus’ birth.

Most people falsely think Yahweh sends Jonah to preach repentance to the Ninevites. Read the text carefully. He preaches destruction, not repentance. But when he does, the unexpected happens: Not only do these horrible sinners repent, Yahweh also repents! The latter is something Jonah, a holy, pious Jew, cannot stomach. How can you have an accurate image of a God who can change? Yet, that’s the message of the book of Jonah. Everyone — even Yahweh and the animals — in that four-chapter narrative changes, except Jonah.

No wonder Mark’s Jesus demands repentance from those who are serious about experiencing God working effectively in their lives. If change is part of God’s personality, it must also be part of ours. (I suggest we always read Jesus’ message about God’s kingdom being at hand before reading any other part of the four Gospels. I presume that was how he began his basic “stump speech” in every town and synagogue he visited during his early ministry. He came simply to teach people how to experience that kingdom right here and now, not how to get into heaven.)

One also must carefully listen to all the Gospels. Should I ask, “What’s Jesus’ first miracle?” And you answer, “Changing water into wine at Cana in Galilee,” you’re only 25 percent correct. That’s his first miracle in John, not in the other three Gospels.

It is important to know each evangelist’s first miracle. It sets the theme for his Gospel. That’s why the Marcan pericope for the Fourth Sunday of this liturgical year is so significant; it provides us with his version of Jesus’ first miracle. He exorcises a demoniac in the Capernaum synagogue.

At the time of the Gospel’s writing, demons were regarded as being responsible for more than just moral evils. They were also the agents behind maladies such as paralysis, epilepsy and lots of other illnesses. (Luke’s Mary Magdalene, who had seven of them, could simply have had a bad case of arthritis. Her demons did not have to have anything to do with the way she lived her life. Certainly, no reason to label her a prostitute.)

Since demons are synonymous with evil, Mark is simply telling us that not only does Jesus’ ministry revolve around ridding the world of evil, but that those who follow him must commit themselves to the same ministry. We’re not on this earth to just tread water until we reach the pearly gates. On the contrary, God expects us to be constantly replacing any evil we encounter on this earth with good. We’re not only to avoid sin; we are to “do good.” After all, we are other Christs.

But the big question is, “How do we know what good to do? How, as the author of Psalm 95 tells us, do we listen to God’s voice?” That is where Deuteronomy 18 kicks in.

The usual way biblical people heard God’s voice was by surfacing the voices of the prophets God embedded in every community. These uniquely gifted individuals were the conscience of the people, providing the chosen people with the future implications of their present actions. Without prophets, people of faith would be flying blind.

That is why the Israelites panic when they realize Moses is dying. Though we look at him as the great Jewish liberator, biblical people stressed his prophetic ministry. How will they know what Yahweh wants them to do when Moses dies? Times and situations change, constantly demanding a new way of relating to both. Just reading Paul’s advice on marrying or not marrying proves the point. At that moment in his life, he was convinced the Parousia was just around the corner. Were he to write 1 Corinthians today, I’m certain he would offer other suggestions to those planning to marry. That is why early Christians followed the risen, not the historical Jesus.

Because the risen, ever-changing Jesus is alive among us, the way we surface and eradicate evil is constantly in flux. Unless we’re willing to learn how to distinguish between the real and the fake prophets in our midst, we cannot be certain what the Christ expects us to do.

Following the theologies of this month’s liturgical readings, it should not surprise us if today’s authentic prophets are not even Christians!

Who do you think they are?

One of the world’s experts on prophecy, Carroll Stuhlmueller, once told me that he had his personal list of contemporary prophets, a list he wouldn’t share with me. His excuse for keeping it private: “If that list ever became public, Rog, I’d never be permitted in any pulpit in any Catholic church the rest of my life.”

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