A prophet is a person who claims to have a sense of vision, a special gift of perceiving the truth, and a claim of authority to proclaim that truth publicly and courageously, especially in the face of opposition. The idea of “teaching with authority” is central to our understanding of the role of the prophet in Scripture.
The reading from Deuteronomy for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time shows how the notion of "the prophet" came to be planted in the people's spiritual consciousness. It was Moses who put it there. We usually think of Moses as the great liberator, God's instrument for the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery. He brought them from their Egyptian slavery and led them across the desert for forty years.
But Moses was also a prophet and today we hear the promise God made to the people through him. They are about to enter the promise land, but Moses will not go with them. Instead he gives them reassurance that God would not abandon them, but would raise up for them "a prophet like me."
Through Moses, God guided, strengthened and encouraged the people during their daily struggles, enabling them, to survive physically and spiritually in the desert. He planted the hope in their hearts that God would send them a prophet like him. From that point on, the people of Israel would expect the one who would deliver them from the external enemies that dominated them and the interior slavery that was their sin.
Today's gospel passage begins with Jesus' entering the synagogue and teaching. Initially it is his teaching that "astonished" the people there. More specifically, they are astonished because Jesus taught, "as one having authority not as the scribes." The cure of the man with the unclean spirit doesn't seem to be the main focus of this narrative; it only serves to emphasize the "new teaching with authority" that astonished them.
Israel had some terrific prophets throughout her history. Moses is just one example of God's reaching out through prophets to speak to the people. But Israel also had a reputation for persecuting prophets and for listening to the many false prophets who also covered the landscape of her history. The irony of Mark’s narrative is that it is this man of unclean spirit who confirms the validity of Jesus’ teaching authority: "Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the Holy One of God." When we call out to Jesus using that same title, we acknowledge that, not only is he the long-awaited One Moses had promised, but we also proclaim him as Lord and Savior, the One who give us new life.
Today we are beset by a host of would-be prophets, who raise their voices on talk-shows, in the press and social media, and in current literature - all of them pretending to have some special gift for discerning the truth and some exclusive right to proclaim it. They know exactly what is wrong with modern-day society, and how precisely to cure any and all of its ills. Many of them are pretentious, egotistical, and intolerant, especially of those who disagree with them. We can feel overwhelmed by the negative, divisive and evil spirits that surround us.
But... we can be sure that they are not authentic prophets.
In this babble of voices, the prophetic message of the Gospel will not be drowned out. It is proclaimed quietly but strongly by faith-filled men and women whose values stand in direct contrast to those of the world.
It is important for us to realize that the Lord's prophetic mission did not end when he returned to the Father. He clearly indicated that his followers would, in every age, be called on to carry on this mission in their world. It was perhaps the most significant element of the ritual of baptism in the early church that the newly-baptized person was anointed with sacred oil with the words: “As Christ was anointed priest, prophet and king, so may you live always as a member of his body..." In the ritual for the celebration of Baptism, this anointing with holy chrism, or christening, is highlighted as most significant; it should characterize the entire life and spirit of the baptized Christian.
And if we are indeed prophets, then we can be assured that our proclaiming of the Gospel is done with the authority that Jesus has given us. May our prophetic witness to the Gospel preserve and strengthen the gifts of faith and freedom for future generations.
And may we accept the challenge of Jesus to live our lives in a loving way that allows the world to experience the God through us and to see His face through ours.