At times there can be a little confusion about what a prophet is. The most common mistake is to say that they are people who foretell the future. Now, there can of course be an element of that. However to reduce a prophet, or indeed a prophetess, to that is to miss something very important. One of the key things about a prophet is that they challenge us. The truth is the prophet will make us uncomfortable.
The reason why we are uncomfortable of course is because the words of the prophet touch a raw nerve. Somewhere deep down we know what the prophet is saying is true. Even though we may deny this, in fact we may be angry with them for speaking the truth, yet we know they are highlighting for us something true that we would prefer not to be reminded of.
In the Old Testament prophets often paid with their lives for courageously speaking the unpalatable truth. Amos was fearless in calling the wealthy to task about the poor, the widow, and the orphan in their midst. Similarly Hosea spoke beautifully about love and fidelity amidst promiscuity. By the time we get to the New Testament and the time of Jesus both the prophetic message, and the cost of promoting it, are equally clear.
In John the Baptist we have the one who is sometimes called the ‘last of the prophets’. John is utterly uncompromising in his message that ‘the kingdom of God is close at hand’. Now whatever about hearing this message, what many found difficult to stomach was the implication of the kingdom’s proximity. John’s message was a message of repentance. ‘Repent, turn away from sin!’ Of course it was and indeed remains one thing to hear this in a general theoretical way but quite another to begin applying it to our lives. John was fearless in the delivery of this message including targeting the dysfunctional and sexually immoral behaviour of the royal family. Given this backdrop perhaps his death by beheading is not such a shock.
I think of the prophet, woman or man, as a living signpost pointing us in the right direction. Almost like a big neon light flashing in the darkness. It’s like the prophets are the wake up call. In all the mess, and all the distractions and all the different paths we can take in life the prophet is just up ahead saying ‘trust me, don’t mind those other paths, the one to happiness is this way’.
Part of the prophet’s role is to challenge things we do that are not good. Not good for ourselves and not good for others. Something happened to me just last week here in Ballyfermot that was a bit like that. I had just come out of Iceland, the supermarket, and I was placing some of the goods I had bought in the boot of the car, when I heard this loud shout, ‘Fr. Joe, I’m not speaking to you anymore!’ I wasn’t quite sure where it came from and then it came again, ‘Fr Joe you should know better!’ This time I was able to place it better. The shout was coming from a little boy who was across the road. I knew him to see and remembered his name as Denis, though I also knew he was known as Deano, a name he much preferred. I turned my hands upward and shrugged as if to ask him, ‘what are you on about?’ However Deano was on a roll and he shouted ‘You should know better, Fr Joe, you are a priest!’ I could contain myself no longer and walked over to him and said ‘what are you talking about?’ To which he replied: ‘All that plastic, all those plastic bottles of water you were putting in the boot of your car, it’s not on! Do you not know that plastic is the big enemy?’
Of course our young prophet Deano, from Ballyfermot, was right. He was spot on. We had a long conversation sitting on his wall and I enjoyed the boiled cake and mug of tea his mother brought out to us. She told me there’s not much he doesn’t know about the environment and indeed that was obvious enough to me in both his knowledge but particularly his passion.To me it’s a great day in our faith community when a ten year old prophet is calling out the Parish Priest on such an important issue as care of the earth. It’s a good sign. It’s a sign of hope. Thank God for prophets like Deano!