27 Sep 2015
“‘Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets. Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all.’” (Numbers 11:29) In the name …
There is a surprising amount of talk in this morning’s liturgy about prophecy as a desired spiritual gift and one freely shared among all of God’s people. It’s surprising to me because the liturgy is written by priests, and priests and prophets don’t get along well. This can be seen in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the earliest church and even the church today. In today’s reading from the Book of Numbers, Moses is at the Tent of Meeting. This is the place outside of the camp of Israel during their Exodus-journey where the prophet Moses would speak with God. If you read the first books of the Bible carefully though, you see that this separated space of prophecy eventually gets folded into the story of the tabernacle at the center of Israel’s encampment, and the tabernacle was ruled by the priests not the prophets. When they retell these earliest stories of Israel, they try to erase the stand-alone tent of prophecy. They try to bring prophecy under their own control.
We can even hear that taking place right before our ears in this morning’s reading. Moses complains to God that it is too much for him to lead Israel alone. God then decides to share some of the spirit that He had bestowed upon Moses with the 70 elders who will then be able to help him. They will be able to receive and share God’s word with the people. This is the whole purpose of the seventy elders, and this is why we heard: “When the spirit rested upon them they prophesied.” Then the tension with the priests enters the story. When they retell this story they add one more phrase: “But they did not do so again.” This makes no sense. The seventy are there only to share Moses’ work of transmitting God’s word to the people, and this they cannot do if they prophesy but once. This is one of the examples of the tension between priest and prophet.
If a person is not familiar with the Bible, they could easily assume that prophecy ends with the Old Testament or at least with John the Baptist, but there are Christian prophets in the New Testament. As a matter of fact, Christian prophecy was so common that Paul had to set up rules for when and how the people could share the gift of prophecy during the liturgy because there was too much of it all at the same time. And Christian prophets are still around and functioning after the Bible closes and early church history is told. But we don’t talk too much about Christian prophets any longer. The church has long ago grown established and prophecy is not a part of the establishment. It can’t be controlled by authorities. It doesn’t come through proper channels. It is an unmediated expression of the will of God. And the established church has always worried about what to do about anything it can’t control.
And that means the current church as well. John Thavis has been a newspaper reporter assigned to Italy since the 1970’s and specifically to the Vatican since 1982. He has just released the book The Vatican Prophecies. He writes that miracles are verified routinely for sainthood causes, but then he goes on to report that there are also “people proclaiming prophetic visions that are virtually kept under wraps.” When the supernatural is used to verify what the established church states, it is embraced, but when the supernatural is expressed as prophecy and is an authority outside of the established church, well, then, “it is kept under wraps.”
In today’s Gospel, the disciple John, the youngest of The Twelve, exclaims to Jesus that they had tried to prevent someone from using the power of Jesus’ name “because,” as the Evangelist says, “he does not follow us.” In today’s Lesson, Joshua, “who from his youth had been Moses’ aide,” says the Book of Numbers, franticly beseeches Moses to order the seventy to stop prophesying to Israel. In both cases, they are gently rebuked. Jesus offers the compelling words of inclusion and tolerance when He says, “‘Whoever is not against us is for us,’” and Moses says to his young protégé, “‘Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!’” There’s this zealousness to protect the authority of the leader, but Jesus and Moses don’t need to be protected. Both of them are excited about the spread of God’s power and presence because this is a sign of blessing.
The Pope came to the United States this past week. His approval ratings among both Roman Catholics and non Roman Catholics are historically high. I have a great deal of respect for the man and his message. I see a lot of what my Bp. Francis said and did in what Pope Francis is saying and trying to do. He’s a breath of fresh air just as Hodur was over a century ago. Garry Wills, a history professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, writes about this Pope in terms of the people of the church model and the hierarchy of the church model, with an obvious favourtism for the people of the church model. The people model that the Pope seems to prefer embraces all sorts of the good wherever it emerges. The hierarchy embraces only what it controls. It’s priest and prophet still locking horns.
But we can see that Moses and Jesus welcomed all kinds of faith expressions, and that’s to be expected because they were both blazing new paths for God. But why would we ever think that reform should stop? Isn’t the Spirit still leading us toward God? If the established religions made mistakes in both sections of the Bible, shouldn’t that be our warning to keep our minds open and our assumptions under guard? Maybe supernatural prophetic visions are being “kept under wraps,” but isn’t the democratic voice of the people of the church still capable of being prophetic? When the people see things that need to be changed, can’t that be God still revealing Himself to us? We’re a couple of weeks away from Confirmation. Aren’t the gifts of the Holy Spirit still what we’re proudly talking about every time the sacrament is shared, and haven’t most of us here been Confirmed, made people of the Spirit? Do we really believe this or are they only words? May Jesus help us as church to be alert and receptive to the prophetic because why would we ever imagine that there’s nothing new in Christ’s church? For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo