In his classic work, "Models of the Church," Jesuit Cardinal Avery Dulles disturbed many Catholics by stressing the role prophecy must play in any church or community which claims to be carrying on the true ministry of Jesus.

"On a biblical basis," he wrote, "Christianity is not healthy unless there is room in it for prophetic protest against abuses of authority."

Sunday's three sacred authors agree. Prophecy is the normal way biblical people surface God's will in their everyday lives. Without a rigid authority structure or a collection of sacred writings, prophecy is "it."

It's important to appreciate the conscience-forming ministry that prophets provide in and for the communities. But it's just as important that we recognize the suffering these same prophets experience when they exercise their God-given vocation. Cardinal Dulles wrote, "Protest would lose its power if it always had to capitulate in the face of threats of ecclesiastical censure."

Suffering

Our readings provide us with a few insights into the pain that accompanies prophetic "non-capitulation." Jeremiah's ministry sets the standard for prophetic suffering (Jer 38: 4-6, 8-10). Since prophets are the community's reformers, there's a sense among some to whom they proclaim God's word that they're trying to destroy the very institutions which God set up for the community's benefit. People rarely understand that prophets simply are trying to turn those institutions into channels for carrying on God's work. But to accomplish that goal, some of those institutions will be have to be changed, repealed or destroyed.

In Jeremiah's case, any practices and structures which keep him and his fellow Israelites from forming a deep, personal relationship with Yahweh must go. Concretely, that means the besieged army in Jerusalem must surrender to the Babylonians, the people must go into exile. There, with the impersonal patterns of Judaism destroyed, they will finally begin to work on developing a meaningful relationship with the God who loves them.

No wonder the Jewish princes accuse Jeremiah of "demoralizing the soldiers...and all the people. He is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin." Only Ebed-melch's actions save the prophet from dying of starvation in the cistern.

Attacking Jesus

Jesus, the prophet, is treated with the same contempt (Lk 12: 49-53). Accustomed to thinking of Jesus only as a divine figure, we forget that during His earthly ministry His contemporaries looked at Him more as a prophet than as the Son of God. They killed Him not because they were trying to rid themselves of God's presence, but because they wanted to eradicate a prophet.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews seems to understand their motive (Heb 12: 1-4). Expecting his community both to root out "every burden of sin" and to persevere in running the race "that lies before them," he encourages his people to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus, their "leader and perfecter of faith" who also "endured such opposition from sinners."

There's no reason to think Luke is putting words into the historical Jesus' mouth when he quotes His reflection on the pain He endures because of His task of setting the earth on fire to be accomplished as soon as possible, because He Himself is being burned up in the process. How long can someone continue a ministry which creates such deep divisions among people?

In almost every Catholic parish in the world the first petition in the Prayer of the Faithful revolves around the well-being of the administrative leaders of our Church. Though nothing's the matter with that, our biblical authors would wonder why our first prayer isn't always for those who suffer most in their ministry: our Church's prophets.

But if it were, what names would we include in the petition?
(08-16-01)