I recently heard a speaker on a local "Catholic" radio station put down Protestants for their reliance on the Bible. He argued that true followers of Jesus put their trust and confidence not in a book, but in the hierarchical system which Jesus set up for His Church, a system which originally determined that the Church should have sacred writings, then decreed which writings would or would not be included in that collection. He assured his obviously "Catholic" audience that, since the Roman Catholic hierarchy controls Scripture, only those people who follow the dictates of that hierarchy can be certain they're doing what God wants them to do. Besides contradicting Vatican II's "Constitution on Revelation" and "On the Church," the speaker's approach to authority and Scripture reminded me of the question Pope Leo X's representative, Cardinal Cajetan, put to Martin Luther in 1518: "If the Pope says it's white, Father Luther, and the Bible says it's black, which do you believe?" Complicated Whichever side one chooses, one is treating God's revelation in a simplistic, magical way. Learning how to determine God's will for us is much more complicated. We Catholics and Protestants aren't alone in searching for something or someone to tell us what God wants. Yet once we get involved with biblical prophets, our search takes a significant twist. Hearing these inspired individuals proclaim God's word, we're usually taking a step back into a period when there existed neither a recognized collection of sacred writings, nor a universally accepted hierarchical authority system. In those days, prophets were, as the late Father Bruce Vawter taught, the "conscience of Israel." A prophet was Yahweh's mouthpiece, the way the faithful came into contact with God's will for them. That's why Sunday's first reading (Jer 1:4-5, 17-19) is so important,. Prophetic "call narratives" are like the introductions to modern books -- the last part of the work to be put into writing. At this point, Jeremiah is reflecting on several decades of being his people's conscience. It hasn't been easy. Jeremiah constantly has had to struggle. But "Judah's kings and princes,...its priests and people" have not prevailed against him. Yahweh has seen to it that he's never been completely crushed. Those who are accustomed to interacting with a system or a book probably can't appreciate how important it was for Jeremiah to be convinced Yahweh had known and dedicated him even before he was "formed in the womb." Prophets experience tremendous rejection. They can't be as easily ignored as a system or a book. They demand a response; and more often than not, the response they receive is similar to the one Jesus receives at the Nazareth synagogue in the Gospel (Lk 4:21-30). Angry mob Recalling for His audience that at various times in Jewish history Yahweh had chosen to help Gentiles instead of Jews, Jesus is confronted with "indignation." "They rose up and expelled Him from the town, leading Him to the brow of the hill on which it was built, intending to hurl Him over the edge." Jesus' townspeople weren't trying to kill Him because He was the Son of God, nor because He represented the Jewish authority structure. They were determined to get rid of Him because they believed He was a prophet -- their conscience. Given that context, the line which comes immediately after the well-known I Corinthians passage is so important (I Cor 12:31-13:13). After having reminded his community that no gift of the Spirit can ever help the community if it isn't motivated by and filled with the "greatest" virtue, love, Paul encourages his readers: "Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, especially that you might prophesy,...(for) those who prophesy build up the Church." (Strange, but neither this line, nor any other line from chapter 14 is ever used in any liturgical reading!) While dictating the most famous chapter of his writings, Paul presumes that people in his community will best uncover Jesus' will for them by developing and recognizing the gift of prophecy in their midst. No wonder we spend so much time and effort arguing over the meaning of structures and books. It's so much easier than being conscious of and responsive to God's living word proclaimed by those around us. God's earliest followers found God's will in prophetic words before they looked for it anywhere else.

(01-29-98)