Prophets are notorious for provoking people's anger. Since they minister as the community's conscience, they constantly challenge individuals who want to appear as being good, but good only within the limits which a particular religious system imposes on them. Prophets remind us that we discover what the good God calls us to do only when we develop the courage to push beyond such limits.

Anger against prophets frequently evolves into persecution and violence, as we hear in Sunday's first and second readings.

At the start of Jeremiah's ministry, Yahweh warns the young prophet not to be intimidated by those to whom he prophesies (Jer 1: 4-5, 17-19). "They will fight against you," Yahweh promises, "but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you."

Though, in chapters 11-20, we hear Jeremiah doubt Yahweh's protection, the prophet is always convinced he's doing what Yahweh called him to do. "Before I formed you in the womb," Yahweh proclaims, "I knew you. Before you were born, I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you."

Fury

But no matter how convinced one is of God's call and protection, persecution still comes. In the Gospel (Lk 4: 21-20), Jesus has just finished saying that His ministry fulfills the words of Isaiah. Yet the people gathered in the Nazareth synagogue "were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove Him out of town, and led Him to the brow of the hill...to hurl Him down headlong."

Jesus obviously said something to provoke their hostility, something to do with limits. Responding to the crowd's amazement that Yahweh could work through a hometown boy, someone barely clinging to the lowest rung of the social ladder, Jesus mentions how Yahweh consistently works through unlikely people. He brings up the case of two famous non-Jews -- the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian, Gentiles whose lives Yahweh intersected in an exceptional way.

"Good" people don't like to be reminded that God can and does work through religious systems other than their own, even through individuals who are outside any religious system. Such prophetic reminders shake the false security religious organizations offer their members. Even back in the first reading, Jeremiah's call creates a problem for his fellow-Jews. Remember, Yahweh appoints him "a prophet to the nations (Gentiles)!"

We usually dislike those who demand we expand our faith instead of contract it and demand that we ground our security in our relationship with God, not in a system of dogmas. That's why Paul's well-known words about love take on a new meaning when we hear them within the prophetic context in which he originally wrote them (1 Cor 12: 31-13:13).

Love

The Apostle warns his Corinthian community that no gift of the Spirit is used correctly if it isn't used with love. Like all prophets, Paul reminds us that only love expands our horizons enough to give us a glimpse of God's unrestricted actions in our lives. Love alone gives us the power to break through life's limits; in this case, to experience the Spirit working through everyone in the community, even those for whom we have little regard.

"Love is patient... kind... not jealous...not pompous... not inflated...not rude. It does not seek its own interest...not quick tempered. It does not brood over injury... not rejoice over wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails."

It's no accident that Paul's next line (omitted from our liturgical passage) reads: "Pursue love, but strive eagerly for the spiritual gifts, above all that you may prophesy."

Perhaps the basic reason we hassle prophets revolves around their constant demand that we love both God and those around us. Only love breaks down our secure, self-serving limits.

(01-25-01)