Recognizing a Prophet

Prophets do not make the easiest of companions. They tend to say and do things that make us uncomfortable and can sometimes be downright alarming. They see what we don’t. Unfortunately, those who claim to be prophets are often no such thing; but we can be taken in for a while because, deep down, we want to be reassured we have a guide, a way of accessing that which is beyond us with a certainty that removes the possibility of risk and failure. We talk about applying the Gamaliel principle but in practice rarely do. If the prophet speaks attractively or acts in a way that we approve, our judgement goes out of the window and we hail the saviour of the hour.

I exaggerate, of course, but there is an element of truth in that first paragraph. Whenever a cause becomes fashionable, our celebrity culture requires individuals to latch onto it and prove their wokeness by dragging the subject into every speech they make, every interview they give, every tweet they inflict on an adoring public. The original prophetic vision becomes distorted or is forgotten. Who now remembers how The Silent Spring changed the way many of us think about the world in which we live and our responsibility for what happens here?

It is the same with Christianity. In the Catholic Church, for example, there are currently a number of battles raging, with the champions being hailed as prophets by those dazzled by what they see. But what do they see? In some cases, I suspect it is a cracked reflection of their (our) own prejudices and preferences, given legitimacy by being associated with someone we regard as a prophet. Instead of taking responsibility ourselves, we prefer to rely on another’s vision and articulation of something we think important or necessary. It is a kind of vicarious faith that has little substance to it.

Today’s gospel (Mark 6. 1–6) confronts us with the question of how we recognize a genuine prophet. What is necessary in us, rather than in the prophet him/herself? From Jesus’ words we gather that a genuine prophet can only be recognized if we ourselves have a living faith — we cannot have what I called a vicarious faith. No one can believe for us. Maybe that is why recognizing a real prophet is so difficult. It is not just what they say and do that matters but what we say and do. To attain the clarity of vision we need, we have to be living the life of faith in all its fullness. Perhaps, instead of looking for prophets and guides outside, we should turn our gaze more inwards and consider what we find there. Only in that way can we hope to recognize the true prophets of our own day and respond to their message when it comes. As St Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule, we must always be on the alert for God’s word and none of us knows in advance how it will come to us today or any day.

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