Each of us is called to be a prophet and share Jesus' message

by Thomas Gumbleton

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Our first lesson today from the prophet Ezekiel reminds us of the role of prophecy within the Jewish community, but also a role that continued on among Christians. Jesus was a prophet; John the Baptist was a prophet. The disciples were called to be prophets. Most of us probably do not think of ourselves as prophets. Even the role of the prophet that Ezekiel speaks about -- comparing the prophet to a watchman for Israel -- that has no relevance for us with our super-sophisticated radar systems, our U-2 planes that oversee the Earth at all the time.

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 33:7-9
Psalms 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Romans 13:8-10
Matthew 18:15-20
Full text of the readings

We can hardly envision someone standing on a hill watching for an army to invade and then to call out a warning. But that's what Ezekiel proclaims as the role of the prophet: to speak for God on behalf of the people. And in Ezekiel's time, it would be like a watchman looking out for how evil might be creeping into the community, coming in in maybe not so noticeable ways, and the prophet speaks for God and alerts the community.

Now again, most of us probably don't think of ourselves as prophets. And yet, if we would go back to our baptism and the ritual that was performed when we became disciples of Jesus through baptism, we would understand that every one of us, every baptized person, is called to be a prophet. During the ceremony, if you go back and look at our ritual and remind yourself of this, at some point, the minister -- well, after the actual pouring of the water, it comes where the minister then anoints the person with holy chrism.

"I anoint you with the chrism of salvation," the minister says, and then goes on to say, "As Jesus was priest, prophet and king, so may you also live always as a member of his body." You've just been incorporated into the body of Christ by your baptism. Now you are called to be as Jesus was -- priest, prophet, and king or ruler. And that role of prophecy is to speak on behalf of God and God's truth.

Every one of us has a calling to be prophetic, to be prophets. In the Gospel, Jesus shows us the role of prophecy in the church, speaking on behalf of God in a time when there's conflict within the community or conflict outside the community. How do you go about resolving it if you want to be carrying out the prophetic role that you've been given: to intercede on the behalf of God, to speak God's truth?

Well, there's a process that Matthew and the Gospel describes, the early Christian community began to practice. The person goes first to the individual, confronts, talks about it. If that doesn't settle the problem, then the person goes with two or three witnesses so that the whole thing becomes more public. Finally, if that doesn't settle it, the person goes, brings it before the whole church, the whole community. And so the church as a whole then is speaking prophetically.

The hope, of course, is that the conflict will be resolved, people will be reconciled, there will be peace. And in the example in the Gospel, it's important to remember what Matthew has described as Jesus prescribing for the community and that the effect that it will have: "Whatever you bind on Earth will be kept bound in heaven. Whatever you unbind on Earth, heaven will keep unbound." In other words, there's an authority to resolve the problem. And it's important, at this point, to remember this is the whole church acting together.

And, of course, at that time ... when the Gospel was proclaimed by Matthew or written down by Matthew and the community, the church was small and could easily gather. So the very authority that previously in Matthew's Gospel had been given to Peter -- "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of God. Whatever you bind on earth, will be bound" and so on -- but now it's the whole community that Matthew says has this authority. Not just Peter or the pope, but the community. Every one of us shares in this authoritative role to teach, to reconcile, to be prophetic.

If we want to bring it down to very concrete instances of prophecy, I think we can do that with just a couple of examples. Back in 2003, when the second Persian Gulf War was threatened, President [George W.] Bush was preparing to go to war, and it was a war that, according to Pope John Paul [II], had no moral justification.

He had already, in a very prophetic way at the time of the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, proclaimed, "War never again! No, never again war, because it destroys the lives of innocent people, throws into upheaval the lives of those who do the killing, and always leaves behind a trail of hatred and resentment that make it all the more difficult to resolve the very problems that provoke the conflict, the war." John Paul spoke out powerfully and pleaded that that war not happen.

But again in 2003, when it was second President Bush was preparing to go to war, John Paul took an extraordinary means to try to prophetically speak against the war, to say, "This is not an accord with God's ways." He wrote a personal letter to President Bush, and he asked Cardinal Pio Laghi, who had been the papal nuncio in Washington, who knew President Bush personally, he asked Cardinal Laghi to deliver this personally, to take it to President Bush, give it to him, and discuss with him why we should not be going to war again in Iraq.

Well, Cardinal Laghi tried to do his responsibility, to carry this prophetic message to President Bush. But then what happened? President Bush received Cardinal Laghi and allowed him to visit and carry on the discussion for a half hour or so. But when Cardinal Laghi returned to the offices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he was very angry. President Bush took the letter, but never opened it or read it. He simply refused to listen to this voice.

As we look back now and see the consequences of that war and all the turmoil, the destruction, the killing, the displacement of people, all that is happening in the Middle East right now where there's been constant war, turmoil, violence ever since that war of 2003, and it's threatening the lives of the people in the whole area. Christians in Iraq and in Syria have been driven from their lands and forced into exile, and this suffering goes on and on.

John Paul had done what the prophet Ezekiel had done: He had proclaimed the Word. He wasn't listened to, and Ezekiel says, "As long as you proclaim it, you fulfilled your role. The person who refuses to hear it suffers the consequences." And isn't that what's happening now? We're suffering the terrible consequences of refusing to listen to this prophetic voice.

And I think it's important for us now to reflect that it wasn't just John Paul who should be speaking that role of carrying out that role of prophecy or prophet. The whole Christian community, if we've been listening to -- St. John Paul, actually, now -- if we've been listening to what he had been saying, and if we ourselves had begun to take up our role of prophet and speak against this evil of this unjust war, we would have fulfilled our role at least, even if we had not been listened to.

But I have a sense that most of us never have the conviction that "I am to be prophetic. I must begin to explore these issues and speak on behalf of the message of Jesus, which rejects violence, rejects war." So that's the way that the prophetic voice of the church could have been heard. But we were, as a church in this country, mostly silent and just allowed everything to move on without speaking of the prophetic words that John Paul had spoken and that, as a leader in our church, had shown us that we, the whole community, should be speaking.

But there are other ways, too, in which the role of prophet is very important for all of us who are disciples of Jesus. And one of the most important prophetic roles I think in the church is the role of married people. That may surprise you, but I ask you to listen to the prayer. I just celebrated a wedding recently, and the opening prayer says this: "You have made the bond of marriage," speaking to God, "God, you have made the bond of marriage a holy mystery, a symbol of the love of Jesus for his church. Hear our prayers for" -- and you name the couple.

"With faith in you and in each other, they pledge their love today. May their lives always bear witness to the reality of that love." And the love that they're pledging is what the sacrament is -- the bond of marriage. A holy mystery, a symbol of the love of Jesus for his church, a love that was unconditional, a love that was total, a love that was ready to, on the part of Jesus, lay down his life for those he loved.

So that's the kind of love that married people are to share with each other through this bond of the sacrament of marriage, a holy mystery that symbolizes the very love of Jesus for his church throughout their married life. Married people have a role that's very special in the church to witness to the love of Jesus in our world.

And listen to what St. Paul says about love in our second lesson today: "Do not be in debt to anyone. Let this be the only debt of one to another -- love. The one who loves his or her neighbor fulfills the law." Or the commandments: Do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not covet, and whatever else. All are summarized, come to fulfillment in this one commandment: "You will love your neighbor as yourself." Love cannot do the neighbor any harm, so love brings into force the whole law, fulfills the whole law.

And that's true of every Christian, but married people, in a very special way, proclaim that love through their married life by giving themselves to each other unconditionally, with total fidelity, faithfulness and constancy forever. So married people have this prophetic role to be a witness to the love of Jesus in our world.

And when we look around at the world, don't we see how important this prophetic message is, the message of Jesus? There is so much violence, so much killing, so much turmoil and chaos even in many parts of the world, in our own country. The explosions of violence are truly frightening and devastating. How can we transform that violence and bring about reconciliation and peace as disciples in the church, according to Matthew, are called to do?

It's by living this prophetic way that our very lives, each of us, and as I mentioned especially married people, who have that unique role of demonstrating love for one another and through their family, that becomes a very powerful message of Jesus, the love of Jesus. But all of us must begin to think about our prophetic role as disciples of Jesus.

How can we do what Jesus asks, to bring his love to bear on every situation in our everyday life, in our community life, our church life, our national life? How can we speak that word of Jesus, that word of love that can bring healing, can bring peace?

I hope as we celebrate this Eucharist today, and we make present on this altar once more that unlimited love of Jesus, whereby he lays down his life for his friends and is raised to new life by God, that as we celebrate these mysteries of our faith at this altar, each one of us will renew our baptismal commitment to be the prophet that we're called to be by our baptism. And as we renew that commitment and try to carry it out, we will be helping to transform our world into the very reign of God, where God will bring fullness of peace and life and joy to every person.

[Homily given at St. Philip the Apostle Church in Occidental, Calif. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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