Group Bible study (Isaiah) led me to wonder the following: What is a prophet? Do we have prophets among us today? Who are they and what is their message? How can we separate the wheat from the chaff?
There were many types of prophecy in ancient cultures. But the Hebrew prophets about whom we read in the Old Testament are our model.
The word prophet comes from the word mouth, literally one who speaks for another and especially one who communicates the divine will. Prophets are God's mouthpiece. They are chosen by God and speak God's word, especially when humanity is going in the wrong direction.
Prophets didn't choose their role as it's a painful task. Some such as Jeremiah complain; others like Elijah are depressed; others such as Ezekiel are "filled with bitterness and anger" (Ezekiel in 3.14f); others are like Jonah who tried to escape God.
Besides, they had no assurance that their word would have any effect on the people or nation. There is no earthly reward but there is an earthly need for prophets to set people on the right track.
The Prophet Jeremiah
Prophets are people of action rising to the needs of the community. Prophets, like miracles, are signs of the supernatural. Prophets are like a lifeline to God. St. Paul ranks prophecy first among spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12.31; 14.1) because it builds up the community, the Church.
Prophets felt compelled to speak God's word: "Thus says the Lord . . .". They revealed God's displeasure when the Israelites were unfaithful. When Israel repented, God relented and did not punish.
Prophets were not socially approved. When one proclaims hard truths, tells people what they do not want to know, people react against the truth-teller. If a prophet is praised, he is likely a false prophet. Jesus said: "Woe to you, when all speak well of you for so they did to the false prophets" (Luke 6.26).
While the prophetic office had a distinctive role to play in Israel, it was different from that of priest or king. Israel, on its own could make a king or a priest, but it could not create a prophet; a prophet is a pure gift from God.
Are there prophets today? There are people who proclaim to tell your fortune but they are not prophets. But I believe there have always been and still are authentic prophets.
Who are they? Individuals or groups who point out when and how humanity is headed toward disaster unless it changes its ways. Today the focus may be more on the damage done to God's creation, the earth and human beings than on abandoning God directly.
Some prophets may deal with economics and the continued poverty of many amidst the riches of the few. Others, that are occurring more frequently, are in the areas of technology such as pornography which is inflicting untold harm, especially on children. There is the whole area of human trafficking and enslavement of peoples.
How can one tell who is an authentic prophet? The same way Hebrews' authentic prophets were recognized. Their lives demonstrated what their mouths were speaking.
Such was the vivid example of Hosea's marriage (Hosea 1-3) where he was told to take a unfaithful wife symbolizing the infidelity of Israel toward God. From his own experience, Hosea knew what it was like for God to be faithful while Israel was so unfaithful.
Ask yourself if the lives of today's prophets demonstrate the truth of their words. How do they contribute while speaking the words of helping the poor? Do these prophets understand the root causes lurking beneath the demeaning treatment of women and children, leading to evils against these vulnerable groups?
Do the lives of these prophets manifest the living and holy God? Would they be recognized as Jesus incarnated in them?
A story is told of a Christian couple who lived quietly and peacefully in a foreign country among non-Christians. When missionaries arrived to preach Jesus, the non-Christians responded, "Oh! We knew this Jesus. They lived in that house on the hill." This couple had lived such exemplary holy and compassionate lives that they were identified with Jesus.
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