The easiest definition of a biblical prophet to
understand and memorize is that of the late Rev. Bruce Vawter: The prophet
is the conscience of the people.
But our sacred authors include other
definitions of prophets and prophecy in their writings. Sunday's Ezekiel
passage contains one of the most significant (Ez 33: 7-9). "You, son of
man," Yahweh says, "I have appointed watchman for the house of
Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me."
The watchman image conveys a picture of someone
out in front, ahead of everyone else, in a position to see now what others
will only see later. In a scriptural environment, the prophet is someone who
lives on the cutting edge of morality. As Hans Walter Wolff always reminded
us, "The prophet is the person who provides us with the future
implications of our present actions." The prophet/watchman sees what
most of us have yet to notice.
That's why we frequently label as modern
prophets such people as the 19th-century abolitionists and suffragettes, or
Dr. Martin Luther King, or even Ralph Nader. Almost everyone today
appreciates the wisdom and justice of their causes. Yet, during their day
and age, they stood almost alone. (Remember how Jesus once sarcastically
remarked that people honor the tombs of the prophets their ancestors
Paul assumes a prophetic stance when, in the
second reading (Rom 13: 8-10), he encourages his readers to "owe
nothing to anyone except to love one another; for the one who loves another
has fulfilled the law....Love never does any wrong to the neighbor; hence,
love is the fulfillment of the law."
In the midst of all the do's and don'ts of
the 613 laws of Moses, Paul reminds his community of the poignant simplicity
of Jesus' prophetic teaching. Whatever isn't done with love isn't from
God. No human-made laws should ever stop us from loving.
In the Gospel (Mt 18: 15-20), Matthew zeroes in
on the community dimension of prophecy. Though Christians are expected to
surface individual prophets in ministering among them, they also must
acknowledge that they, as the Body of Christ, are likewise gifted and
burdened with prophecy.
As prophets, Jesus commands us to confront evil
in our midst and not ignore it. Starting with individual confrontations,
Christian practice eventually ends up with the whole community - "the
Church" - playing a role. (Of course, when Jesus tells us to treat
someone as "a Gentile or tax collector," we can never forget the
loving way in which He related to such individuals.)
This belief in the community's prophetic
power and obligation is rooted in the statement with which Matthew ends the
Gospel. "Where two or three are gathered in my name," Jesus
teaches, "there am I in their midst." That's why Jesus can
categorically state, "Whatever you [the Church] bind on earth shall be
bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in
Because of an exaggerated reliance on the
hierarchical structure of our Church, few Catholics ever think of themselves
as the community's watchmen or watchwomen. We hear the words about binding
and loosing directed to Peter in chapter 16 and forget Jesus directs those
same words to everyone here in chapter 18.
It's evident from the Gospel that Jesus never
envisioned His followers as being morally passive, waiting patiently for
some authority figure "from above" to tell them what's right or
Maybe the most valuable thing our individual
prophets are stressing today might be the prophetic ministry of the whole
Christian community. Hope-fully, their prophetic words might eventually
compel us to develop our own God-given consciences.