Genuine and False Prophets

Douglas P. McManaman
August 19, 2019
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reproduced with Permission

The readings for this 20th Sunday in Ordinary time are very interesting - they're tricky in some ways. The first reading illustrates how we treat our prophets, genuine prophets, the ones who truly are a mouthpiece of God. What is particularly interesting in this first reading is the way Jeremiah is depicted - as a trouble-maker, or as "divisive". Note the criteria that is employed to reject him: "...he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin." What they were upset about was precisely what God was saying to them through Jeremiah, that the Chaldeans are going to return and destroy the city. "Thus says the Lord: Do not deceive yourselves, saying: 'The Chaldeans are surely leaving us forever.' They are not! Even if you could defeat the whole Chaldean army that is now attacking you, and only the wounded remained, each in his tent, these would rise up and destroy the city with fire." And so, they should surrender.

Well, they did not want to hear that. They wanted a more hopeful message. They didn't get that, so they imprisoned Jeremiah, and later threw him down a well where he sank in the mud. And things haven't changed at all in the world. We still refuse to listen to genuine prophets when they speak, when they warn us that our choices have serious consequences - good choices have long term consequences, namely blessings, and sinful choices have long term consequences as well, but these are not blessings - that is from the book of Deuteronomy. And we persecute those who remind us of these very points. In fact, Jesus says in the Beatitudes that if we live in him, we will be persecuted. That's part and parcel of living in the Person of Christ. That will not change. Genuine prophets deliver a genuine message, and they pay for it.

The God we worship is a God of mercy; there is no doubt about it. God has revealed himself as absolute mercy, and we see that manifest in the mystery of the cross. But God is not unjust; His mercy does not undermine His justice. If it did, God would be an unjust God, and that would mean God is imperfect, for indifference to justice is an imperfection. God is not imperfect. He is just, but his justice is merciful, and his mercy is always just. He can juggle these two perfectly, whereas we typically cannot. Our mercy is often leniency, which is not a virtue at all, but a deficiency of justice. And our justice is very often lacking in mercy. But this is not the case with God.

And I have seen this over the years. I know people who have made choices in their lives, very sinful choices, and their decisions have caused tremendous suffering to others. But their choices have also brought about tremendous destruction to their own lives. And they have to live with that for the rest of their lives. And yet God is merciful. He has forgiven their sins when they went out looking for His forgiveness. He infuses divine grace into their souls in the sacraments, which they receive. The hope of eternal life is theirs. That's the absolute mercy of God. However, the damage they have inflicted upon themselves is still there. God has not removed it. I have seen this especially when it comes to drug use and the mental health effects that such abuse has had on the lives of certain users, in particular the brain damage that has resulted. It's not reversible. We do indeed pay for the sins we choose to commit. Whether that is drug use and limited brain damage, or sexual license and viral STDs, or bacterial STDs that do irreversible damage to the reproductive system, which in turn can affect future offspring, or the character damage that certain anti-life choices have on a person, etc. It's not that God sends these diseases or consequences to punish them; rather, these and other negative consequences of sin are part of the self-destruction that sin is. A true prophet will speak of God's mercy, but a true prophet will also warn the people that there are consequences to sinful choices that we will have to live with for the rest of our lives. For example, adultery hurts spouses, and divorce hurts kids, and hurt kids become hurting adults, who engage in further destructive behaviour, on both a personal and social level, which causes suffering to others and to the self. Personal sin begets social injustices, such as fraud, economic injustice, war, "regime change" wars and the lies that start those wars, the poverty and starvation that results from war, etc. False prophets will say nothing about all this, because that can make people feel uncomfortable.

I'm reminded of those priests who quickly become popular because they never preach anything that would make anyone in the congregation even slightly uncomfortable. Many of us have had experience with such priests. I knew one who never mentioned the word "sin". Instead of saying, at the beginning of Mass: "Let us call to mind our sins and ask God for his forgiveness", he would say "Let us call to mind our frailties". Subtle, but significant. Frailties are not sins; we all have frailties by virtue of the fact that we are human beings. Our Blessed Mother had frailties; Jesus had frailties, but neither had sins. And I've been told that some pastors would get very upset if anyone preached on morality, the moral life, the need for repentance, especially if that message included specifics, such as abortion, or adultery, fornication, couples living together, euthanasia, deliberately missing mass on Sundays, etc. I know one who said to the congregation that all one had to do to get into heaven was to enjoy the gift of life. Regular confession and weekly Mass were not necessary, much less is it important to even know the basics of the faith. Mass was often turned into a comedy show. But people loved him, and he seemed to love the adulation he was getting.

But when things went south, when things took a turn for the worse and he left, the bishop came to speak to that congregation. I just happened to have been there, and I remember the first reading from that Mass. It was a reading from Ezekiel: "Son of man, I have appointed you a sentinel for the house of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, you shall warn them for me. If I say to the wicked, You shall surely die - and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade the wicked from their evil conduct in order to save their lives - then they shall die for their sin, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. If, however, you warn the wicked and they still do not turn from their wickedness and evil conduct, they shall die for their sin, but you shall save your life." I was struck by the providence of the timing of that reading, because the reading said it all.

I believe there is an obligation on the part of the people in the parish not to feed into this kind of thing and to work to rectify it. Turning the liturgy into one's own personal show is an abuse of the liturgy. Neglecting to call the faithful to holiness, that is, refusing to call them to make the difficult choices of rejecting sin and to rise above the pressure to conform to cultural mores in favor of a softer and entirely innocuous message is negligence, like the doctor who refuses to prescribe effective medicine because it is hard to swallow or a parent who feeds his children sweets instead of healthier options, because he or she does not want to upset the children. Congregations should not fall for that; they should have enough wisdom and good sense to see right through that sort of thing.

Jesus said: Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law." It just does not follow that because someone is divisive, he or she is not from God. And of course, it does not follow that because someone is divisive, he is a genuine prophet. No, there are lots of false prophets who are divisive. It's not divisiveness that qualifies or disqualifies them. It is Christ that is the distinguishing factor, and Christ tends to divide. Those who do not belong to God hate the truth that Christ is; they love pleasure more than they love the truth. Truth is larger than us, we have to conform to it, not the other way around. Those who are ready and willing to conform to something larger, like Truth, are not uncomfortable when they hear the truth proclaimed.

But how do we know we are speaking the truth? This again, is a difficult question. So many people are convinced that they speak the truth. We have to be careful, because what appears to us as truth beyond question can easily be false. In fact, the more I study, the more I realize how wrong I was 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and 30 years ago, with respect to some of my strongest convictions. The older we get, the more epistemically humble we ought to become - and experience in being wrong makes that much easier. But God's word is quite clear when it comes to the fundamentals of morality and the precepts of the gospel. You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery; greed, envy, lying, indifference to the poor, indifference to injustice, all make a person unclean; these are fairly unambiguous, and there is no peace in the world today because we are constantly dealing with the long term effects and consequences of our sins, our personal and social sins, and we are not dealing with them for what they are; we are not recognizing these things as the very consequences of our sins, which call us to repentance and reparation. Rather, we respond to these consequences within the very same mentality that spawned them in the first place. And so the world goes on as it always has. But our individual lives do not have to go on the way they have been. We can repent of sin; renew our baptismal vows and renounce sin and Satan and all his empty promises and declare our faith in the saving power of Christ. That will change our individual lives, which in turn will have a positive, lasting, and incalculable effect on others for generations to come.