For many years I made my annual retreat at the Jesuit Novitiate in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. There is a Catholic parish adjacent to the retreat center property. The parish has two Sunday Masses in the morning that are attended by the Cajun residents of the town, and one Sunday Mass in the afternoon that is attended by the African-American residents.
There are separate Masses because the Cajuns are rather taciturn when they pray, but the African-Americans are very energetic. On Sunday afternoons during my retreat I could hear the music, singing and the preaching. It was the sort of preaching that is common in African-American churches of all denominations: passionate, engaging and much more time consuming than the Cajuns would sit still for.
The very emotional style of preaching that is common in African-American churches provides a good comparison for us to use in order to understand biblical prophecy. Our first reading today is an excerpt from the call of the prophet Jeremiah, the second reading mentions “the gift of prophecy” and in the Gospel reading Jesus compares himself to the ancient prophets.
Prophecy, in the Scriptures, is completely unrelated to the common understandings of the word. Biblical prophecy is not at all similar to fortune-telling or predictions about the future. In the Scriptures, prophecy is always about the present time. Biblical prophecy is moral or pious exhortation, directed to a particular audience, providing instruction about how to live faithfully in present circumstances. Some biblical prophecy is a call to repentance; some is an invitation to growth in faith and righteousness, but all prophecy is directed to the hearer’s present situation.
As I said, the passionate and engaging style of preaching that is common in African-American congregations is a good comparison to use in order to understand biblical prophecy. Biblical prophecy is passionate, engaging exhortation directed to a particular audience. When St. Paul wrote about “prophets” (1 Cor 12:29), for example, he was referring to a disparate group of itinerant preachers which would wander from congregation to congregation. These prophets were very charismatic preachers who provided explanation of the Scriptures, moral exhortation and something akin to what we would identify as motivational speeches.
As Church life became more organized and standardized the charismatic gifts such as prophecy receded, and were replaced by institutional ministries. Today, preaching, teaching and moral exhortation are primarily the responsibility of theologians, the clergy and catechists. Although Lectionary-based preaching, classroom instruction and theological writings have largely replaced the charismatic gifts of the Church’s first century, there are some instances of spontaneous spiritual leadership that remain active in the Church.
Let me offer an example of a modern-day prophet. Pope Francis visited the Great Synagogue in Rome a few weeks ago, and later this year will take part in a Lutheran celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Some people have been very critical of the pope for being so friendly with non-Catholics; in my estimation, his actions are prophetic.
Keep in mind that biblical prophecy was always spoken to a particular audience about particular issues going on in their lives. The pope’s actions are examples of simple human decency, consciously chosen. How is this prophetic? Take a look at the news and current events. Whether you look at politics in this country, or politics abroad, a clearly discernible common element is the lack of decency. Our current presidential race is a catalog of inhumane and indecent public discourse.
We live at a time when everyone feels so entitled to their personal truth that there is no room for another’s truth. We live in a culture that is tragically self-destructive because it denies the very basis of human society: concern for one’s neighbor. We are surrounded by messages proclaiming the unsurpassable value of self, to the complete rejection of decent public behavior.
The pope’s actions are prophecy directed to all of us: if we are not decent to the people around us, we cannot claim to have faith; if we do not love the neighbor we see, we do not love the God we cannot see. Like the prophets of old, Pope Francis’ public witness of decency is rejected by those who find it threatening; like the faithful of old, people who follow God’s will are edified by his example.
If you attend to the news and current events you are likely to get the message that it’s a sin to treat people decently. We as a Church need to hear a prophetic warning about the lack of compassion in our world. Decent, kind and charitable behavior is the foundation of, and prerequisite for, love of God. St. Paul described love as patient, kind, not pompous, not self-concerned, not brooding over injuries, but enduring and forgiving. (1 Cor 13:4-7) This passage of Scripture has, in fact, been fulfilled in our hearing – in the witness of Pope Francis’ decency expressed toward those who do not believe the way we do. His example is prophecy that calls all of us to repentance.