How do people discover what God wants them to do? Some spend a lifetime in the quest; others seem to know it from birth. When Paul, for instance, in Sunday’s second reading (Eph 1: 3-14) speaks about "the mystery of (God’s) will," how does he actually know what God wants for His people?

Different Christian denominations have developed different procedures for surfacing that will. Many Protestants believe we simply should read the Bible. Everything God wants us to do is contained in its pages. Many Catholics believe we should obey the hierarchy’s every command. God communicates His will through authority structures.

The problem is that our ancestors in the faith rarely relied on the Bible or an authority structure. They normally found out what God wanted them to do by consulting the prophets in their midst.

Prophets

Those who believe prophets were those people in the Hebrew Scriptures who predicted Jesus’ coming probably won’t appreciate the late Rev. Raymond Brown’s comment that there are no predictions of Jesus, as such, anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. If prophets didn’t predict His coming, what did they do?

Scripture scholars call prophets the "conscience of the people." They presume their prophetic ministry is rooted in helping people discover what God wants them to do. Just as God works through our conscience, He works through our prophets. If we believe this, the next question is, "How do we find the prophets?"

We know from the first reading (Amos 7: 12-15) that there’s no simple answer to that question. Amos refuses to accept the title of "visionary" which Amaziah, priest of Bethel, gives him. "I was no prophet," he snaps back, "nor have I belonged to a company of prophets."

Since everyone in ancient Judaism depended on prophets, both "church and state" supplied prophets. Every shrine and every court, every priest and every king had prophets on the payroll: individuals who proclaimed not the word of Yahweh, but the word of the priest or king. Amos refuses to be confused with these religious shills.

"Yahweh took me from following the flock," he tells Amaziah, "and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’"

Amaziah is throwing Amos out of Bethel because he can’t control what this former shepherd from Tekoa is telling the pilgrims who visit "his" shrine.

Real and fake

The ability to distinguish real prophets from their fake counterparts was essential for our faith ancestors. Real consciences of the people identify with Paul’s statement to the Ephesians that they’ve received all the blessings from God that they could ever hope for. If Christian, they certainly rejoice because they were "chosen in Jesus, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before Him." Yet that belief wasn’t going to convince anyone that they were entrusted with God’s word. Only their lifestyle could do that.

That’s why Mark’s Jesus stresses how the Twelve are to preach repentance (Mk 6: 7-13). "Take nothing for the journey," He commands, "but a walking stick. No food, no sack, no money in (your) belts." He even forbids them to "house-hop:" going from place to place searching for the best accommodations. "Wher-ever you enter a house," Jesus insists, "stay there until you leave."

Jesus is far less concerned with laying out the most efficient way of proclaiming the word than He’s interested in conveying the most meaningful way. Only those whose lifestyles agree with their words are worthy of being thought of as prophets.

No wonder we turn to a book or authority figures to find out what God wants. If we turned to prophets, we might actually have to imitate them.

(7/10/03)