Both of today’s readings seem to highlight the prophet Elijah – the first emphasizing his miraculous deeds, and the second (in the person of John the Baptist), his murder by the powers that run the world. This might seem a strange emphasis just 10 days shy of Christmas, so it’s helpful to recognize that, like Elijah, Jesus was a prophet – in fact the last and the greatest of the prophets. We’ve called Him many things, “Savior”, “teacher”, “Son-of-man”, “Messiah”, but St. Luke, particularly, stresses that Jesus was first and foremost a prophet, the last in a line of individual prophets.
In popular understanding a prophet is one who foretells the future, but in the biblical sense, that ability to look ahead was mainly a matter of comparing the prophets’ understanding of how God wanted human affairs to be ordered and how we had chosen to do it instead. The consequences were inevitable and hence foreseeable. Actually the principal function of a prophet was to tell the powers that be (secular as well as religious) that they had gotten off the track, and to remind them of how God wanted them to run the world that God had entrusted to them – to tell them not only by preaching and teaching, but by symbolic action and by the way the prophets lived their lives – a way that exemplified the prophets’ words.
Scripture scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson, in his wonderful book “Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church”, lists the behaviors that exemplify prophets and prophetic activity – all of which reach their highest expression in Jesus’ words and life. These behaviors expressly reverse human values and standards. They are manifested by poverty and sharing, by freely going and doing what the Spirit inspires, by prayer, and by servant leadership. We know, for example, that Jesus’ mission embraced those marginalized by His world. Johnson writes: “The conventional standards of ancient culture – indeed of virtually every culture then and now – privilege the male over the female, the free over the slave, the rich over the poor, the powerful over the weak, the healthy over the sick. Indeed, societies can and do marginalize and even exclude those whose weakness, illness, and poverty stand in too great a contrast to the standards of acceptability . . .” All power structures, sacred and profane, do these things. The prophet speaks to them all – speaks with his/her life as well as with words.
That’s all very interesting perhaps, but what does it have to do with me? What perhaps we fail to grasp sufficiently is the fact that it is the job of the Church – our job – to extend that prophetic witness and embodiment into our world. We are called not so much to be docile or devout, but to be a prophetic people – we individually – and we collectively, the people of God, the Church.
Happily, components of the Christian Church do act in ways that typify a prophet. (Women religious are one clear example.) Still, do I think of myself as a prophet? Does my life exhibit what I prophesy? And particularly, do I – do we – typify servant leadership – as individuals and as Church?