Who Gets to Be a Prophet?

South Bend, Indiana. It was by coincidence that the racist comments of Donald Trump on Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations, our remembrance of the Rev. Martin Luther King, and the 2nd Sunday of the Church year (January 14) all coincided this past weekend. Samuel in the night

The state of nation is perilous, and we are lacking decent leadership at the highest level; there is a need for bold prophetic voices grounded in Biblical revelation, if truth is to be spoken to power in a way that changes things, exposing, rebuking, and healing. And while many, many good people are speaking out, we need more people able to speak boldly, not their own opinions or by a generalized righteousness, but in God’s name. To update slightly Sunday’s first reading from I Samuel 3: “The word of the Lord was rare in these days; visions are not widespread.”

Whence the word, whence the vision? Being a prophet has many facets, but cultivating the Spirit within us is a necessary starting point. We need to hear a call and follow up on it. Sunday’s readings offer two ways in which to think about this cultivation of vocation.

Sunday’s Gospel, John 1:35-39, speaks of the meeting of the first disciples with Jesus, pointed out by John the Baptist. It reminds us though that even if we meet Jesus, knowing him takes time, particularly if we are to walk with him, and share in speaking the good news. Advised by John, Andrew and another, unnamed disciple follow Jesus down the beach. But this is not enough, for they may merely be running from John to Jesus, in hopes of something more. The key to the passage is the exchange that occurs: “When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.”

We are not ready to preach the good news, or really even be disciples, until we know what we are looking for; choose intimacy with Jesus, wanting to be where he is, willin to spend time with him; and respond to the call, “Come and see.”

Sunday’s first reading, I Samuel 3:1-18, reminds us that discipleship in general is not enough. We need to be able to recognize the voice of God calling to us in particular, and that how we’ve been religiously thus far may not be enough. Samuel will become one of the great prophets, but he is first of all just another pious youth, ministering to the priest Eli by day, and (extraordinarily, I would think) taking his nightly rest in the temple of the Lord, by the Ark. And yet, and the reading points out, he “did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” The drama lies in God’s triple call to Samuel, who keeps misinterprets the call as the voice of Eli — his familiar master — until finally, advised by Eli, he stands and replies directly to God who has been speaking directly to him: ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.” Samuel is finally ready to hear something new, that goes beyond serving the old priest or even abiding by the sacred Ark. He finally hears, and the Lord can do something new in him: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” Samuel with anoint Saul king; he will discard Saul in God’s name; he will find David in the fields, and transfer God’s blessings to him.

It is not easy to speak up for truth and justice. But it is harder still to be an effective prophet, who has been patient enough to live with God, and who has (finally) heard God’s word anew, in a land where there are no prophets. A thirst for justice is not enough; anger at racism and hypocrisy is not enough; contempt for a narcissistic, cruel, and immature leader is not enough; following good leaders, as Samuel serves Eli and Andrew follows John, is not enough; being religious in the good ways we are usually religious — external rites, visiting places with a sacred history — is not enough. If we are Christians in more than name only, we need also to accept Jesus’ invitation to dwell with him, get to know him; we need to become familiar with the voice of God calling us individually by name, to upset things, shaking society and politics and the religious establishment too. What to say? The next Dr. King is already in our midst, surely.

We could start with Sunday’s second read, from I Corinthians 6: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.” What does this mean in 2018? That is, alas, the topic for another post.

Of course, in our pluralistic society, we need to be able to hear prophetic voices from more than the Christian tradition. Jews can and do speak powerfully, when immersed in the prophetic tradition of Israel. But every other tradition too offers paths of purification and transformation, intimacy with God, with the Spirit, and it will be important in our society to hear powerful Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist voices; voices from Native American traditions, and African traditions too. I welcome comments from readers immersed in other prophetic traditions.

But no one gets to speak glibly. As Sunday’s readings teach us: dwell intimately in the Truth; hear the Truth summoning you in particular; then speak.

(PS: as always, I indicate at the beginning of every blog where I am writing from. This semester, I am sojourning at Notre Dame, in South Bend, Indiana. More on this wonderful place later!)