Friday, July 30, 2010

Prophets without Honor

Have you ever secretly envied the apostles and people of Jesus' day, wishing you could have heard his voice with your own ears, eaten the fish and bread there on the green grass, maybe waded in the Sea of Galilee while Jesus preached from the boat? Would that have enhanced your relationship with the Lord? Today's Gospel brings a bit of a reality check.
One of the challenges most daily homilists face is that of bringing together readings that are running on two separate cycles. While the Sunday lectionary has a deliberate (and fairly consistent) matching between the Gospel passage and the first reading (the Gospel is what determined the choice of the first reading), the weekday lectionary has something else going on. The Gospels are read more or less successively, and the first readings follow on their own track. So it's rare that you get a genuine match between the two; sometimes you get some nifty correlation, but rarely the kind of match you'd find on a Sunday.
Today is one of those rare days in which it would seem as though the first reading and Psalm had been intentionally placed with the Gospel. The Psalm especially could be read as Jesus' own prayer in the event we read about: the rejection of his message by the people of Nazareth.
In both readings, God's messenger is threatened, and his message rejected, by people close to them. In Jeremiah's case, it was the “priests and prophets”--Jeremiah's own caste, because he was from a priestly family. In both cases, the grounds for rejection are specious.
At Nazareth, Jesus was teaching—and the people acknowledged the real “wisdom” of his words, but they kept it on a safely superficial level, admitting that there was wisdom in the abstract, but not actually listening to the message. Instead, they asked belittling questions that allowed them to write Jesus off as an anomaly—or as a local curiosity.
The strong parallels between the two readings got me thinking about what we do when we reject the prophets of our own day. After all, the people of Nazareth and the priests and prophets of the Jerusalem Temple were not the last of their kind. Thomas Aquinas was rejected in academia because he drew principles from pagan and Muslim thinkers; John Paul II's Theology of the Body is even now marginalized by those who condescendingly note that the author was “formed by his World War II experience, so different from the American experience of affluence and freedom...”.
So this led me to formulate seven sure strategies for dismissing prophets without having to engage them directly or actually read their works or listen to their words. Feel free to add other useful strategies in the comment box!
How to Reject a Prophet (without really trying)*

  • put someone in a category (liberal/conservative) and keep the lid tight so he/she won't surprise you with an insight
  • focus on the bad hair, or teeth, or the strong accent (unless it is a “classy” accent)
  • focus on the nice clothes (you can later approvingly comment on it, or wonder aloud how much it cost; either approach allows you to avoid any real issues raised)
  • come with an a priori judgment
  • pigeon-hole the prophet to a very specific sphere to limit the reach of the message
  • never question your own position by wondering, for example, if you are motivated by envy or by fear of change or loss of personal advantage
  • don't forget the all-purpose approach of “guilt by association”

*These strategies work in all sorts of settings, not only the religious. Try them on inconvenient persons in the areas of economics, politics, medicine... The possibilities are limitless!

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