The motive and mission of the true prophet

On the readings for Sunday, February 3, 2013

• Jer 1:4-5, 17-19
• Ps 71:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 15-17
• 1 Cor 12:31—13:13 or 13:4-13
• Lk 4:21-30

The nineteenth-century poet Thomas Moore once observed: “The prophet ill sustains his holy call/Who finds not heav’n to suit the tastes of all.” There have long been false prophets who have sought to tickle the ears of the people in order to acquire money, power, and fame. In our day and culture, we can easily point to televangelists as heirs to false prophets, but such sophists and con men come in many forms. The words of the Apostle John are as true today as they were in the first century: “[M]any false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1).

But what is a prophet? What does a true prophet do? Yes, often says things about the future; the Old Testament prophets frequently spoke about future events. But most prophecy had as much to do with the moral choices of ordinary people as it did with earth-shaking events. Prophetic utterances were often exhortations to holiness, to authentic worship, and to zealous love for God and neighbor. Prophets such as Jeremiah and Elijah (both part of today’s readings) were called to tell the truth about God and to proclaim God’s Word to the people. Thus, the false prophet lies about God and leads people away Him.

Young Jeremiah, not even thirty years old, began to prophecy during a time of extreme political turmoil and overt apostasy. The people of Judah had turned away from the worship of Yahweh and were worshipping Baal. Jeremiah was told three things: he was chosen before birth by God to be a prophet, he would suffer persecution for his witness, and he would be sustained by the Lord. In a similar vein, the responsorial Psalm praises God for His sustaining salvation: “On you I depend from birth; from my mother’s womb you are my strength.” The mission of the prophet is summed up well in the refrain: “I will sing of your salvation.”

The reading from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth provides a perfect theological bridge to the event described in today’s Gospel. 1 Corinthians 13 is a well-known passage, nearly poetic in nature, about the theological virtue of love. The relationship between prophecy and love is not commonly remarked upon, but Paul, himself an apostle and prophet, states, “And if I have the gift of prophecy, and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Love first; all else follows. Why? First, because God is Love, the perfect and eternal communion of three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf. I Jn 1:5; 4:8; CCC 214, 218-221). Secondly, because the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord, your God, with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your mind” (Matt 22:34-40; CCC 2055). Third, because the true prophet is a child of God who loves God and others and who speaks the truth about God. Love, Paul wrote, does not seek its own interests, “but rejoices with the truth.”

The reading from Luke’s Gospel demonstrates that those who seek their own interests and do not love the truth will despise the true prophet. At first the people were taken with Jesus and His message. But when Jesus made it clear—by comparing His mission to that of Elijah—that He came to reach the Gentiles as well as the Jews, matters turned ugly. Jesus was no longer accepted in His own country because He made it clear that His work of salvation is meant for all men, even those beyond His country. 

By virtue of being baptized into Christ, all Christians, including the laity, are called to participate in the prophetic work of their Savior (CCC 904-905). “By virtue of their prophetic mission,” states the Catechism“lay people ‘are called . . . to be witnesses to Christ in all circumstances and at the very heart of the community of mankind’” (CCC 942; cf CCC 871). Like Jeremiah, every child of God is known by his heavenly Father before he is born. Being a prophet means evangelizing however we can, by both word and deed, proclaiming the truth about God no matter the tastes of the listeners.

 (This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the January 28, 2007, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.