“Prophet” is not a label that we Christians easily apply to Jesus. It seems a dangerously inferior title, connoting a role shared by too many other persons to be fully worthy of the Lord Jesus. “Jesus the prophet” recalls the Islamic view that Jesus is indeed a prophet, on a line pointing toward the Prophet Muhammad, but not the Son of God. We are distracted as well by the modern misconception that biblical prophecy has mainly to do with foretelling the future, something that was not primary in the teaching of Jesus.
We are more comfortable with the titles “priest” and “king,” which seem to honor our Lord more adequately. These are understandable. And yet we lose an important part of the gospel portrait of Jesus when we neglect his role as prophet. For if the titles and images of king and priest are powerful acknowledgments of realities manifest in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the title most appropriate to his pre-Easter public life may well be that of prophet. That is how his contemporaries identified him (“a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,” said the disciples on the road to Emmaus; Luke 24:19). And that is how the teaching and praying Church continues to proclaim him when it speaks in its liturgy and documents of Jesus as prophet, priest, and king. Tradition, then, warrants our taking seriously that title of prophet.
First, we need to clear up the misconception that biblical prophecy is mainly about predicting the future (Jeane Dixon-style, if you will). The focus is elsewhere; a biblical prophet is one who speaks to the people in the name of God—mainly with reference to the present, though past and future are invoked as they pertain to the present (calling for repentance and offering hope). Typically, prophets speak against “business as usual,” and therefore they are normally resisted and rejected. Like John the Baptist, who lost his head by confronting Herod Antipas about his unlawful marriage, Jesus fit the traditional Hebrew role of prophet. People were amazed that he spoke not as the scribes and Pharisees but as one having authority.
Like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Jesus performed prophetic symbolic actions—for example, in his table fellowship with outcasts, his choice of a donkey to enter Jerusalem, his clearing of the Temple area, his washing of feet. As Jesus returns to Nazareth in this Sunday’s Gospel, his own people—even while acknowledging in amazement his wisdom and power—take offense at him. This is a prophet’s lot, Jesus acknowledges. In the Second Reading, Paul, who spoke of his vocation as prophetic (see also Gal 1:11,15), rejoices that he knows the power of God best in his weakness, as he lives out the prophetic role of witnessing to the gospel.The same goes for us, as we follow the one who proved to be priest and king in his fidelity to the role of prophet.