Real Prophets

By Karban, Roger Vermalen | National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

Real Prophets


Karban, Roger Vermalen, National Catholic Reporter


Immediately after Paul's oftquoted 1 Corinthians 13 pericope on the importance of integrating love into every gift of the Spirit, he encourages his community, "Strive eagerly for the spiritual gifts, above all that you may prophesy" (14:1).

Prophecy is the normal biblical way of surfacing God's will in one's life. Though Catholics look to the hierarchy and Protestants open their Bibles to discover God's plan for them, the people who gave us our Scriptures obviously had neither the Bible nor a hierarchical structure as we know it to fall back on. They believed God had blessed certain individuals in their midst with a special gift of knowing God's will in specific situations. People of faith were expected to find those insightful persons, listen to them and then carry out their message.

Paul was convinced that prophecy is essential for any Christian community. If you don't have prophets, you'll be walking in the dark, not knowing what direction to go.

There are two basic definitions of biblical prophets. The first is by Fr. Bruce Vawter, who made it the title of his famous book The Conscience of Israel. The second is from one of world's experts on biblical prophecy, Hans Walter Wolff, who always referred to prophets as the people in our midst who inform us of the future implications of our present actions. Either definition is correct; each simply focuses on different aspects of prophetic ministry.

Because prophecy was the accepted scriptural way of discovering God's will, it didn't take long for those in authority to create a system of court and shrine prophets: people who basically proclaimed the will of the king or priests, but did so in Yahweh's name. Our sacred authors sometimes referred to such institutional pawns as people who "ate at the king's or priests' table." They could always be counted on to deliver the party line, rarely the will of God.

This created a logical problem for the faithful: How can you tell authentic prophets from fake prophets?

Among the list of characteristics our sacred authors developed to distinguish true prophets from fake prophets, three stand out in today's readings.

First, an authentic prophet always takes us back to the beginnings of our faith, as today's Hebrews author does. "[We must] persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith." Jesus, not the institution, is the reason we believe.

Second, real prophets suffer because of the message they proclaim. This is clearly at the heart of our Jeremiah and Lucan pericopes. …

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