23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
"If your brother or sister listens to you, you have won them over."
Entrance Antiphon: Ps 119(118):137, 124 – “You are just, O Lord, and Your judgment is right; treat Your servant in accord with Your merciful love.”
First Reading: Ez 33:7-9 – “If you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, I will hold you responsible for his death.”
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9 – “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.”
Second Reading: Rom 13:8-10 – “Love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Alleluia: 2 Cor 5:19 – “God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
Gospel: Mt 18:15-20 – “If your brother or sister listens to you, you have won them over.”
Communion Antiphon: Ps 42(41):2-3 – “Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for You, my God; my soul is thirsting for God, the living God.”
The Cold War of the 1950’s inspired a film classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, which was remade (but I do not think improved) twelve years ago in 2008. A humanoid ambassador from outer space lands his craft in Washington, D.C. His name is Klaatu. A huge robot capable of lethal power accompanies him. Klaatu has brought a message for Earth’s leaders. Their penchant for violence, their discovery of nuclear power, and their first steps into space are causing great concern and worry among peoples of other planets. Humans must change their aggressive, warring ways, or “Planet Earth will be eliminated.” In the 2008 version, the inhabitants of earth needed to become more environmentally conscious … their destruction of the earth and its resources would result in their own destruction as well.
Klaatu was sent to deliver a message. And in that regard, he was a prophet. So was Ezekiel. Both spoke on behalf of someone else at a critical point in their relationship. Both faced people in no mood to listen. There are many differences, of course. Ezekiel’s message came from God, but perhaps the message of Henry Bates, the author of the original story of The Day the Earth Stood Still, could have come from God as well.
So for a few moments, let’s examine the life of a prophet. First, God’s choice of prophets does not follow our logic. Jeremiah was young and unaccustomed to public speaking (Jeremiah 1:6). And Amos was “a shepherd and dresser of sycamores” (Amos 7:14). Second, prophets are compelled to deliver a message, even if they don’t want to, even if no one listens. In today’s First Reading, God makes this clear to Ezekiel. The wicked will die, but God will hold Ezekiel responsible if he does not preach the message. Third, the prophets of old generally got a reception anywhere from cold to hostile. And I think that today, prophets seldom fare much better. Ideas later seen as common sense or basic Christianity are initially often branded as radical. And not that I’m claiming to be a prophet, but I can speak from experience … I know quite well the response I’ve received from individuals or groups when I’ve said common sense things like the need to get to Mass on time … in other words … before the priest is processing down the aisle or the readings are being proclaimed … or not to read the bulletin during the Mass … to participate fully in the Mass ... in this ultimate expression of our faith … or perhaps to dress appropriately for Mass. Those things are common sense … they are not in the least bit radical. So I have to ask ... what would the reaction be to a more profound challenge about your faith?
The prophets all had and have the same core message: change the way you live ... change the way you do things ... while there’s still time. Prophets of the Israelites nearly always dealt with Israel’s infidelity, which revolved around one or both of two things: the wholesale adoption of idolatry … in other words, turning away from God in favor of pagan gods or wealth or something along those lines … or putting their trust in political alliances rather than in God’s protection. Even when warning of dire consequences, God held out hope for Israel’s conversion. Prophets of modern times have dealt with a multiplicity of issues both secular and religious. The environmental movement began with Rachel Carson and her 1961 book, Silent Spring, which documented the destructive effects of DDT and other chemical pesticides. This earned her the seething hatred of chemical corporations. Many other issues began with prophetic voices: the civil rights movement and its distant cousin, the Black Lives Matter movement … attempts to rectify the horrendous inequality in use of the earth’s resources … global warming and other environmental issues … attempts to curb the ever increasing gap between the wealthy and the destitute and to educate society of our moral obligations to the poor … out of control consumerism. Now you might say that none of those things has anything to do with religion, Father … but when you look at those things in the light of social justice, the common good, and the stewardship of the earth, these issues are not purely secular … each one of them has a strong faith dimension.
So, how do you deal with a prophet? Think about it. First, you have to recognize him or her. They may be a bit of a maverick. They may be an easy target for jokes or even ridicule or derision. They are frequently perceived as a threat to your comfortable lifestyle ... why? Because they want to change the comfortable status quo. They may carry or deliver a message, which, if literally true, is disconcerting or even scary. On the flip side, here are some strategies for dismissing a prophet, especially if they threaten your comfortable lifestyle. Maybe you should hold tight to your prejudices and stereotypes ... and the “but we’ve always done it this way.” Be one of those individuals who defend the status quo passionately and claim that God blesses it. Another strategy is to put the individual in the same category as genuine, certified nut cases and the loony tunes of the past … maybe even ignore them. I hope you wouldn’t choose one of those options but rather take one of these intelligent approaches to a possible prophet in your midst. Here’s what I would do … I would go to the source. I would talk to the person to find out why they do or say what they do. I would attempt to read the person’s exact, original words … not what someone else says about what the individual said or wrote. I would ignore commentators, news reporters, or disgruntled individuals who simply have an axe to grind. And most importantly, I would pray for discernment from God who knows this person well.