One of the reasons organized religion traditionally persecutes real prophets and rewards fake ones revolves around the authentic prophets' disturbing habit of taking us back to the beginnings of our faith.

All organizations eventually develop shortcuts, loopholes and practices that either cause or enable them to veer from their founder's original charism.

We've all heard about civics class experiments in which a student reads several items of our Constitution's Bill of Rights to people waiting at a bus stop and asks their opinion. Many think they are from the radical agenda of some subversive, revolutionary, anti-American movement. Only a few recognize them as part of the core document of our democracy.

At the core

Prophets find themselves in a similar situation. Though they're the most conservative force in society, they're so radically conservative that almost everyone classifies them as flaming liberals. We're simply not comfortable with those who want to conserve what is at the core of our faith

Sunday's Gospel (Luke 4:21-30) presents us with a classic example of what happens when a prophet tries to take people back to the beginnings of their faith. In this case, Jesus confronts the false idea that Yahweh works only through specially designated individuals.

In the estimate of those who knew Him as a kid in Nazareth, He didn't fit into the prophetic category. He responds to their limiting of God's actions by reminding them of how Yahweh, centuries before, had worked not only through, but also on behalf of non-Jews. The crowd's reaction is predictable: "Filled with fury, they rose up, drove Him out of the town, and led Him to the brow of the hill...to hurl Him down headlong."

Though Jesus escapes, the lesson is clear: "We don't want to be taken back that far into our faith. We're comfortable just where we are."

Jeremiah understood that situation all too well. When, toward the end of his life, he composed the famous "call narrative" that begins the collection of his oracles, he was certain of two things: Yahweh had called him to his prophetic ministry; and, no matter what he had to suffer in carrying it out, Yahweh would be with him, guaranteeing he was speaking the truth.

No matter the opposition, Jeremiah had no choice but to deliver Yahweh's word, bringing people back to the beginnings of Judaism.

Love is central

No passage in the Christian Scriptures roots us better in the fundamentals of Christian faith than the second reading on love (I Corinthians 12:31-13:13).

We must remember that Paul never intended this chapter to be read, studied or memorized independent of the preceding and following chapters. All three deal with the Spirit's gifts and how they're employed in the community. Should anyone use his or her gift outside the context of love, it's worthless.

But because love always involves a death, it's easy to forget its place at the heart of our faith. Comfortably substituting other things for it in the practice of that faith, we think only "radical" Christians are actually motivated by love.

Yet, as our Christian prophets tell us, love is the only force that can change how we relate to others.

(1/25/07)