Hans Walter Wolff's definition of a prophet is brief, but to the point: "The prophet is that person in the community who provides us with the future implications of our present actions."

His definition comes to life in Sunday's three readings. Luke's story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) uncovers Wolff's insight. The latter's treatment of Lazarus creates no problem for him during his lifetime; the beggar is just a minor irritation.

Yet the future implications of the rich man's ignoring Lazarus are devastating. Abraham informs the man whose wealth and power have vanished, "Remember that you received what was good during your lifetime; while Lazarus likewise received what was bad, but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented."

The author of I Timothy (6:11-16) points to the future his readers should be creating: "Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called." In order to achieve that eternal life, they must "pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness" here and now. The author's ideal future is the result of living correctly in a real present.

Gray areas
Often, those biblical future implications aren't as black and white as they are for Luke and the Timothy author. No prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance, knows of an eternal life as we do.

That's why none of them mention heaven/hell implications of following or not following their words. They only warn of things which will happen during their audience's lifetime.

Amos (6:1a, 4-7) reminds the wealthy in eighth-century BCE Israel that they're committing an egregious sin: complacency.

"Woe to the complacent," he states. "Lying on beds of ivory...they eat...calves from the stall!"

Wolff explained that those who raised cattle in stalls instead of grazing them had to feed them grain the poor would have been overjoyed to eat. Because the wealthy preferred the more tasty meat stall-fed cattle provided, the needs of the poor weren't considered.

Down the road
"They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils," Amos continues. "Yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph [Israel]!"

They don't even notice the effects of their lavish lifestyle. It's destroying the country, leading to its eventual destruction.

Years ago I invited Rev. Vic Hummert, a Maryknoll missionary friend, to speak to one of my high school religion classes. It didn't take him long to alienate my students: He simply asked how much they'd paid for their transistor radios.

When the students told him how inexpensive they were, he told them his Hong Kong parishioners were receiving starvation wages for assembling those radios. Though my students were amazed they were participating in a huge injustice, no one offered to pay more for a radio so the priest's friends could receive a living wage.

Amos' listeners weren't the last complacent people in history.
(09/23/10)