In yesterday's lectionary for Mass, both Jeremiah the prophet and Jesus, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, receive a less than enthusiastic response from their listeners. Jeremiah, preaching conversion of heart to the self-satisfied and complacent at the entrance to the temple in Jerusalem, is manhandled and threatened with death (Jer 26:1-9). Jesus, who ultimately will be put to death for his preaching and seemingly outrageous claims of union with His Father, is a source of offense to the folks in his hometown (Mt 13:54-58).
Jeremiah's problem is ours today, as it has been for Christians in every age. We were anointed priest, prophet, and king at our baptism, and that anointing is meant to be lived out in large and small ways each day. In his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Christifideles Laici, Pope John Paul II wrote, "through their participation in the prophetic mission of Christ... the lay faithful are given the ability and responsibility to accept the gospel in faith and to proclaim it in word and deed, without hesitating to courageously identify and denounce evil." (CF, 14) Won't we be fun at cocktail parties!
Some Catholics take on this role more naturally than others. I have met many people who have adopted a prophetic stance towards all kinds of evils and perceived evils: abortion, economic injustice, war, environmental issues, music by the St. Louis Jesuits. It's one thing to rage against "the system", but quite another to make it personal as Jeremiah and our Lord do. Yet that, too, is part of being a prophet - calling people to conversion. And because it is so difficult, so personal, it doesn't happen very often. If someone I know is doing something wrong, or has done some injury to me or another, it's pretty darn tough to point it out. In fact, it takes real love to do so - a genuine desire for the good of the other.
As I reflected upon the response of the crowds to Jesus and Jeremiah, I thought of three typical responses they received, and how they are the same responses we tend to get when we try to offer someone "fraternal correction."
The first one is the hoped-for response; the very one God mentions to Jeremiah: "Perhaps they will listen and turn back, each from his evil way, so that I may repent of the evil I have planned to inflict upon them for their evil deeds." If I care about someone who is in need of conversion, calling them to conversion is an act of love precisely because I trust that living apart from God - even in a small way - will be a source of unhappiness and sorrow for them.
The second is similar to the one Jesus is given "in his native place". It's the "I know who you are, and you're nothing special - how dare you tell me what to do" response. The intensity of this response can vary from polite silence to the "whatever" of a teen-ager, to a full-out ad hominem attack. "Why, you're nothing but a glutton and a drunkard, and you hang out with sinners and prostitutes!" Often, I believe we fear the worst will happen, so we keep our mouths shut. Or, worse yet, we fear the other person might suddenly have their tongue loosened and we get a dose of a genuinely prophetic response which points out our own failings. Chances are, if we're close enough to someone to see their failings, they're close enough to see ours.
Finally, there's the third response - the doing away with the prophet altogether. This is the fate Jeremiah suffered when he was stoned to death by his exasperated countrymen in Egypt. Jesus, too, offered the priestly sacrifice of himself as the ultimate price for his prophetic and kingly work. While we may not have to worry too much about a death sentence from a former friend, we do risk losing the friendship. Someone may simply walk away, or at least emotionally walk away. This so often happens in marriages when one party chooses to do or say something with the explicit intent of hurting the other.
As challenging as it may be to live as a prophet for our friends, family members, co-workers, society, it's probably as challenging to receive correction when someone cares about us enough to offer it in a loving way. And perhaps that's the key. How can we make our prophetic living an act of love? Pope John Paul II mentioned the courage necessary to denounce evil. Denouncing evil as a sign and act of love takes more than mere courage, it takes grace. But if done lovingly, perhaps there's a better chance it is from God, and a better chance our genuinely prophetic words will be accepted.