Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (2015)
By Fr. Leroy Clementich, CSC
Years ago, when I was in graduate school in New York City I lived with the Holy Cross brothers in the Bronx and I would travel by subway into Manhattan to 116th and Broadway where Union Seminary was located. Every morning as I came up the steps to 116th, there on the corner stood a tall, young man, long black hair, black beard and wearing a sandwich board on which was printed: “Beware! The end is near. “ As people walked by, he would yell, “Hey, you know the end is near.” People would smile and walk on. I don’t think anyone believed that prediction, I didn’t. But there he stood that whole fall semester, wearing that board. Then one day in the middle of December he just disappeared and we never saw him again. People used to say: “He thinks he is a prophet or something.” I don’t think he had a mental problem; he was just convinced that the end was near and he wanted to make sure everyone was aware of that
I guess it must take a lot of courage to stand on the street like that and warn people about the disasters of the future., but that is what prophets do. Prophets have been doing that, at least in the Jewish-Christian tradition since Moses and Jesus. Nonetheless, prophets are usually unappreciated because they need to say hard, but honest things. If you advertised in the paper or on television for a prophet, you would get few people who would apply.
But Israel needed prophets, we need prophets because prophets have that canny skill of noticing when life is out of kilter in the secular world. Then, of course, being overwhelmed by God’s message, they are under pressure to let us know what we can do about worldly conditions. In other words, prophets, by their insights, bridge the gap between the sacred and the secular. They tell us where life in the world has gone awry and what we can do about it. But whether people of any age have listened is another question. But we would do well to notice them and listen well because if they truly are convinced that they are prophets, they will be truth tellers as they themselves understand truth and life as it happens around them.
That is why I never get tired of reading Isaiah the prophet, for instance, or Jeremiah or Amos or Micah or Paul or above all, Jesus of Nazareth They were often not well-liked because they insisted on proclaiming the truth to deaf ears, to people who imagined that all was well in the world and all was well.
Interestingly, the scriptures for this Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time are specifically about prophets and prophecy.
In our first reading from the book of Deuteronomy the Israelite people are deathly afraid that God Himself may speak to them over their transgressions. Moses assures them, however, that they will always have prophets to speak for God and then the criticism will not be so bad. Actually, it turns out that some of the prophets spoke tougher words than God Himself might have spoken.
In the Gospel, the people listening to Jesus are astonished because “He speaks his mind, as one having authority and originality and not as the scribes who simply fall back on tradition and have nothing original to say.”
The interesting question to ask then is this: Who are the prophets of our age. Who speaks truth to power today, who speaks words that shame us or make us say, wow, are times really that bad?
Well there are some folks who have done that and are doing so today. So, I sat down one day and asked myself, who are the people on my list I would consider prophetic types? I jotted down some names and came up with over 50. Then I pared them down to ten contemporary people who have had an impact on my life: In addition to the biblical prophets I mentioned above, I would add the following:
Joshua Abraham Heschel, Jewish Rabbi and master teacher, who once said: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
Thomas Merton, the monk whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, got thousands and thousands of people thinking about monastic life and the life of contemplation
Albert Camus, the French Novelist, who was once asked by some Dominican priests in France what the role of the Christian in the modern world was, said that the task of the Christian in the modern world is simply to be Christian. That will cause one to listen!
Pope Benedict XVI is on my list of favorite prophets because when he became pope everyone thought he would be “one tough pope,” but he turned out be a true and gentle pastoral leader. He also writes some really good things about the virtues of faith, hope and charity.
Dorothy Day is on my list: Most of her life, she took care of the poor by founding Houses of Hospitality around the country. She got thrown in prison several times for demanding rights for women. When someone told her that they thought she was a saint she said: “Don’t call me a saint, I wouldn’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet, is a favorite of mine. He found God in everything around him and wrote: “Glory be to God for dappled things—for skies of couple-color as a brindled cow; for rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.” Wow! Isn’t that something?
Henry David Thoeau, before “being green” was the in thing wrote: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” You can’t say it any better than that.
Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit, who is probably the closest example to a true prophet I can think of today and a writer too. He makes you sit up and say. “Why the heck didn’t I think of that?” He has also been in jail a number of times for his peaceful protests. His favorite saying is: “In war, everybody loses and nobody wins.”
Deitrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran Pastor, who wrote some beautiful books on peace, all of which brought him to Flossenburg prison and hanging by Hitler’s SS..
George Carlin the poet and humorist is on my list. His language did not always make him many friends, but he also managed to say some things that could make you hesitate for as moment: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but rather by the moments that take your breath away.” Those words will absolve him for his other transgressions.
That’s 10 and I’m sure there are hundreds of others. The point is, the world has always had its prophets and many have not been very well liked. Some got thrown in to dry cisterns (Jeremiah) for their preaching, others got laughed out of town. But their common denominator was simply the fact that they were on fire to make this world a better place and they were willing to die for it.
So, perhaps that is the reason why we can all be prophets if we want to .not because we like to get under the skin of other people. But rather because it is our common duty to speak truth to power. It’s just a matter of looking life in the face and asking, “Is there something wrong going on here, and what can I do to change it for the better?” That’s the question that should bother us.
Dan Berrigan once said, “If you have never been thrown in jail for speaking your convictions, maybe you don’t have any.” Well, I would like to believe we all do have some convictions about life, but they don’t do much good unless someone knows about them. Actually we don’t even need to put on a sandwich board to get our point across.
The scriptures: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20 • 1 Corinthians 7: 32-35 • Mark 1: 21-28
USCCB Bible Daily Readings: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time