We are rightly suspicious of self-appointed prophets. Biblical warrant for this suspicion lies in the fact that the typical prophet in Scripture is profoundly reluctant to accept the appointment. Whence the sarcastic label “self-anointed prophet” applied to anyone who too readily claims such a role. In most biblical contexts, the term prophet means “forth-teller” rather than “fore-teller.” That is, the designated person is asked to speak to the community in the name of God. Sometimes, indeed, the message does include reference to the future, but mainly it is a message the community needs to hear regarding how it ought to alter its way of proceeding in the present.
When we feel called to confront our little part of the world in the name of God, it must be motivated by love.
In our appropriate restraint to name or claim to be prophets, we more readily apply the term to dead messengers (Martin Luther King, Pope John XXIII, Dorothy Day) than to living ones (Sister Helen Prejean?—one of my candidates). And yet, our Scriptures invite us to take the role of prophet with utmost seriousness—regarding Jesus, the apostles, and ourselves. Jeremiah was for the early Church the archetypal prophet, so much so that language from his call story (this Sunday's First Reading
) is used to describe our archetypal apostle, St. Paul; he uses Jeremiah's call to describe his own vocation (Gal 1:15
), and Luke does the same in Acts 26:17
. The Gospel
reading shows Jesus placing his mission in the prophetic tradition of Elijah and Elisha. Further, our theology of baptism describes our own Christian mission as a participation in Jesus' role of prophet, along with the awesome roles of priest and king.
What can give perspective to any application of the role of prophet to ourselves or others is Paul's reflection on the place of love as the “way” of exercising all the gifts. When we feel called to confront our little part of the world in the name of God—that is, according to an informed conscience—it must be motivated by love. Otherwise our action is empty and our perceived role self-appointed
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New
Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published
articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of
Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New
Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries,
as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context
1989), and three other books
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