Though difficult for modern followers of God to understand, our ancestors in the faith looked for divine guidance neither in a definitive collection of sacred writings, nor in a tightly structured religious institution. Those who gave us our Sacred Scripture knew only one basic way to discover God's will: prophecy.
Biblical prophets aren't predictors of future events. They are, as the late Rev. Bruce Vawter once described them, "the conscience of the people." A prophet tells us what God wants us to do. That means he or she rarely tells us anything new. Prophets simply take God's word and apply it to circumstances and people we'd rather not apply it to.
Most of us already have some inkling of God's will. But either we've pushed God's word completely out of our daily lives, or we've relegated it to the outskirts of our existence. A prophet takes what we've shoved to or beyond the perimeters of our faith, and pulls it back to the center of that faith.
That's why Sunday's first reading (Is 61: 1-2, 10-11) is one of Scripture's most important passages. Reflecting on his ministry, the prophet knows that if he proclaims what Yahweh commands, he'll eventually "bring glad tidings to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners." Those on the outskirts of society are the individuals who most need and depend on a constant prophetic ministry.
Yet Isaiah knows this tremendous turn-about won't happen instantaneously, so he couches his words in growth metaphors. "As the earth brings forth its plants," he proclaims, "and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will Yahweh God make justice and praise spring up before all the nations."
Accepting the model of this prophet, we understand why both Jews and Muslims have no trouble accepting the historical Jesus as a prophet. Were we Christians to put His divinity into the background for a few seconds, His prophetic dimension would be overwhelming even to us. Jesus is the conscience for all who follow Him. This insight leads the evangelists to ally Him with someone everyone recognizes as a prophet: John, the Baptizer.
Each Gospel writer argues the same thesis: If John is a great prophet, then Jesus must be even greater. Notice in the Gospel (Jn 1: 6-8, 19-28) how John the Evangelist makes his namesake's ministry a prelim for Jesus' ministry.
"He (John) was not the light, but came to testify to the light." Then, putting his theology into John's mouth, the evangelist states, "There is one coming after me whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie." The early Christian community believes John, at his prophetic best, is still less a prophet than Jesus. Followers of the Nazareth carpenter can be certain they're doing what God wants them to do when they do what Jesus wants them to do.
Yet we know from our earliest Christian writings that Jesus' original disciples never thought prophecy died with the historical Jesus. His prophetic charism carried over into those who tried to imitate His dying and rising. We hear in chapter 14 of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, for instance, that prophecy is the community's most important gift from the Spirit. If prophecy is ongoing, then surfacing prophets is an essential task for the Church.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise in the second reading (I Thes 5: 16-24) -- the earliest Christian writing we possess -- that Paul gives his famous warning: "Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances!" The apostle believes Jesus' followers need prophecy more than anything else. In his mind, those who squelch prophets are squelching the Holy Spirit.
If we leave Sunday's Eucharist without asking how we're to surface, recognize and listen to the prophets in our midst, we must have been daydreaming during the liturgy of God's word.