Because we frequently misunderstand the role prophets have in and for the community, we frequently misinterpret the words prophets proclaim. If we regard prophets solely as predictors of coming events, we’ll hear their words only as announcements of what God plans to accomplish in the future.

But if we buy into the definition which Scripture scholars have long been trying to convey, we’ll begin to see prophets as the "conscience of the people:" persons who tell their communities what God wants them to do right here and now.

If a prophet simply predicts the future, we have to know little about the prophet’s personality or the people to whom the oracle is given. But once we identify a prophet as the community’s conscience, we must make the effort to know the historical circumstances in and against which a prophet proclaims God’s word. We must learn as much as we can about the prophet and the prophet’s community.

God’s dreams

A prophet basically proclaims God’s dreams, dreams which break abruptly into the daily lives of those hearing his or her words. Because we’re accustomed to live without weaving God’s dreams into our lives, we usually regard the prophets in our midst to be crazy, impractical individuals, disseminating ideas that are impossible carry out in the present. If we lived in another world with different people, surrounded by a new environment, then maybe we’d pay closer attention.

Yet it’s precisely to their present world that prophets are sent. Isaiah, for instance, proclaims Yahweh’s word to a people fearful of annihilation (Is 35:1-6, 10). Hoards of Assyrian soldiers are poised to destroy Jerusalem, to turn the peaceful confines of Judah into total chaos. In the middle of such angst, Isaiah declares: "Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!"

The reasoning behind these encouraging words is simple: "Here is your God; He comes with vindication; with divine recompense, He comes to save you."

"Why are you worried,?" the prophet asks. "God’s here among us!" Yahweh’s presence will cause "the eyes of the blind (to) be opened, the ears of the deaf cleared;...the lame (to) leap like a stag, the tongue of the dumb to sing."

Once the Israelites acknowledge God working in their lives, they’ll begin to look at everything and everyone from a new perspective. What they thought possible only in the future, they’ll now understand to be attainable in the present.

James also writes to a fearful community (James 5:7-10). Its members are worried they won’t be able to hold out until the Parousia; they fear they’ll cave into temptation before Jesus returns to take them with Him. Like Isaiah, James tries to show his readers that what they hope for is already here. Though he stresses patience and determination, he also remind them that "the judge stands at the gate." Just as the prophets believed that what they were proclaiming was already happening. So they must live that the risen Jesus is already infiltrating their lives.


Yet even prophets need to be reminded that the message they announce is being fulfilled as they announce it. We have no better example of this than in Sunday’s Gospel (Mt 11:2-11). Like those to whom they prophesy, prophets too must focus their eyes and open their ears to perceive how God is carrying out their words. In this case, John thinks Jesus should be displaying His messianic powers in more dramatic ways than He’s doing. Jesus’ lack of pizzazz makes John wonder if he’s wasted his life giving the wrong message about the wrong person.

"Go back and report to John what you hear and see," Jesus commands: "The blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the poor have the good news preached to them." And then, the most important words, "Blest is the person who finds no stumbling block in me." In other words, "See in my and my actions what you spent your life proclaiming."

Probably the most difficult thing to admit about prophets is that unless — right here and now — we recognize and integrate the God-dream they proclaim, the ideal future we anticipate will be only a rerun of the present we abhor.