Taking Seriously the Prophetic Office

Douglas P. McManaman
Sept 6, 2020
Homily: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reproduced with Permission

I've always loved this first reading from Ezekiel (33.7-9), and it was a Protestant Evangelical who actually turned my attention to its importance. I'm referring specifically to the verse: "If I tell the wicked, "O wicked one, you shall surely die," and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death". And so, this is a serious warning to us, to all the faithful, because we have all been anointed priest, prophet and king, and this verse highlights the prophetic office, the obligation to warn, and not remain silent. But this text is especially ominous for bishops, priests, and deacons, because they have been given a deeper share in the prophetic office by virtue of Holy Orders, and of course bishops have the most complete share in that office.

I've always been lucky to have had priest friends who take that prophetic office very seriously. One friend in particular whom I was visiting in another diocese, long before I was ordained a deacon, was preaching on sin in general, its destructiveness, and the healing power of Confession, etc. I remember that he did not get specific, as he usually does - and it is certainly important to get specific at times, for many assume that if specific sins are not mentioned, they must not be sinful; but my friend did not mention anything specific in his homily that time around. Later on, that afternoon, he called me over to the office to listen to a message left on his answering machine. It was the voice of a man with a Scandinavian accent who was visiting the Church for the first time, and who said: "Father, I heard your homily today, and I just want you to know that I think you are full of ___________, and I am going to have as much sex as I want, with whomever I want". And he hung up. What was interesting about this is that my friend did not mention sex at all in his homily.

This sort of thing happens quite often to priests who challenge the faithful, particularly on a moral level. Sometimes bishops will get letters from parishioners complaining about sermons that challenge the faithful on issues of personal morality, especially sexual morality. And when this happens often, it can wear a person out, so that soon he just keeps his preaching light and innocuous. And after two decades of that, we end up with a generation of people who know very little about morality and who are making all sorts of moral choices inconsistent with Catholic moral teaching. And so, this warning from Ezekiel also addresses such people who are a negative influence on the clergy by their letter writing, their anger at being told what is morally right and wrong, and their pressure to silence such clergy. They too will be held responsible for those who die in their sins as a result of not being properly warned.

The Second Reading from Romans (13, 8-10) is also very important: St. Paul says: "The commandments are summed up in this saying: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. Love is the fulfillment of the law." There is a false interpretation of this text, and a true or more accurate interpretation of this text. Allow me to deal with the false interpretation first, since it is becoming increasingly prevalent today. An atheist and anti-religious friend of mine in the U.S recently sent me an article about a couple who decided to open up their marriage, that is, to become "sexually inclusive". They were permitting one another to have sexual relationships with others - adultery, in other words. But they were conflicted. They wondered whether they could still call themselves Christian; they still believe in God and in Jesus, but Christians as a whole would not approve of their decision. They wrote to a Christian columnist for advice who basically assured them that since they are not killing, lying, and hurting others, but instead are making the world a kinder and more enjoyable place to be, God would not be displeased with such a couple. In other words, "love is the fulfillment of the law". My friend was very disappointed in me that I would criticize such a couple's decision.

But what St. Paul means when he says that love is the fulfillment of the law is that the commandments outline the specific and concrete demands of love; the commandments are the unfolding and unravelling of Christ's precept to love God and neighbour. The first three commandments have to do with love of God, and the last seven have to do with the love of neighbour. Adultery, for example, is inconsistent with love of neighbour; so too is killing, and stealing and lying and bearing false witness, envy, etc. If you love your neighbour, especially your own wife or husband, you won't be unfaithful, and you won't be reading pornography, for example, which is a kind of infidelity. If you love your girlfriend, you won't use her sexually as a means to an end or have sex with her without the secure commitment of marriage - contrary to popular culture, that's not love. And again, if you love your neighbour, you won't intentionally kill them, and so you'll see the seriousness of what the Church refers to as crimes against life today, such as abortion and euthanasia. And the commandments can be unraveled even more, to become far more specific, and that's what the science of ethics is all about, moral philosophy and moral theology. The Church has an inexhaustibly rich heritage in this area that has undergone tremendous growth and development in the 20th century.

But Jesus said it himself: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill them. Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 5, 17-19).

These are difficult times we are living in, for the pressure today is not to teach these commandments. But we have to decide on our own who we are going to follow: the world that pressures us to shut up and will actually reward us for our silence, or Christ, who will hold us responsible for our silence, but reward us eternally for choosing to exercise our prophetic office.