Sunday, September 30, 2012

The ‘Politics’ of the Prophets

John the Baptist confronting King Herod

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 30, 2012, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Numbers 11: 25-29.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-sixthSunday 2012]


This morning I’d like to speak to you briefly about the ‘politics’ of the prophets (a rather timely topic to deal with during an election year, wouldn’t you say?).

Now, there’s always a danger in mentioning politics of any kind from the pulpit—at least there’s a danger if you’re an orthodox Catholic who believes in the natural law and the Ten Commandments.  Then, you had better watch it!  On the other hand, if you’re a cleric of a more liberal persuasion when it comes to abortion and other social issues, then you can say whatever you want about political topics and not a word of protest is uttered in most secular media outlets.

I find it interesting, for example, that a certain Baptist minister—who proudly uses the title, “Reverend” in public—has his own TV show on one of the cable news networks: a show that’s almost completely political in its focus!

Whatever happened to the so-called “separation of church and state,” Reverend Sharpton?

Oh well, I guess that only applies to some of us.

I, of course, never tell anyone from the pulpit whom they should vote for—although I’ve been accused of doing that by some people.  I’ll never forget, several years ago, just before a presidential election, an irate elderly woman came to the rectory one afternoon demanding to talk with me.  So I took her into the sun room, we sat down, and she immediately pointed her finger at me and shouted, “I’m very upset with you!  You want us to vote for so-and-so!”

I said, “Well, that’s interesting.  But tell me, have I ever said in one of my homilies, ‘In this election you should vote for so-and-so’?  Have I ever said anything like that?”

She said, “Well, no. . . . BUT I KNOW YOU—AND YOU WANT US TO VOTE FOR SO-AND-SO!!!”

Now I will give that woman credit for one thing: she was making “connections”—very important connections: connections between what I did say in my homilies and the circumstances of her daily life.

And I make no apologies for that occurrence, because that’s exactly what a preacher is supposed to help people do!  He’s supposed to help men and women to connect the timeless message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with their everyday experience.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this in paragraph 2246: “It is part of the Church’s mission to pass moral judgments even in matters related to politics, whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it.”

So when a priest says something like, “It’s wrong for a politician to support and promote the destruction of innocent human life through abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research,” or, “It’s wrong for a politician to directly attack the religious freedom and conscience rights of others,” that priest is simply doing what he was ordained to do!  He’s highlighting truths that should guide Catholics—and all men and women of good will—in choosing the best possible people to be their leaders.  Now if those listening to him at Mass on a given Sunday make direct connections in their minds between these truths and certain individual politicians, that’s their business.  The priest can’t help that.  The fault actually lies with the politicians who advocate those evil public policies.  The policies are evil because they violate basic, fundamental human rights, like the right to life and the right to religious freedom (rights, incidentally, upon which this nation was founded!).

Politicians can differ on the best way to fix the economy and the health care system, but not on basic human rights.

Human rights are non-negotiable.

Now if you still have an objection to priests addressing subjects like this in their homilies, I do ask that you try to be thankful: Be thankful that you have to listen to someone like Fr. Ray every weekend and not Samuel, or Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Elijah, or Amos, or John the Baptist, or any of the great biblical prophets.  I say, “Be thankful,” because, compared to all those guys, I’m a veritable pussycat!

Biblically speaking, who were the prophets?  Well, very simply, the prophets were people who proclaimed God’s word—God’s sacred truth—to others.  They were not fortune-tellers (that’s a common misunderstanding).  Yes, it’s true, they did talk at times about the future, but always in relation to what was happening in the present moment!  For example, they often said things like, “Reform your lives, so that something bad will not happen to you.” 

Notice: that message points to the future, but it’s designed to get people to change their lives in a positive way in the present moment.

That’s typical of prophetic utterances in the Bible.

Actually, we’re all called to be prophets in the world today because of the fact that we’re baptized!  We’re called to be the fulfillment of the desire of Moses that he expressed to Joshua in today’s first reading—in that line where he says, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!  Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”

Each and every one of is called to speak God’s truth to other people in love (as St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 4: 15).  That’s our common Christian mandate. 

And yet, as we all know, throughout history God has appointed certain people to be prophets in a more formal sense.

I mentioned some of these individuals a few moments ago: Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, etc.

And what I realized when I was preparing this homily the other day is that these men, whom we read about in the Sacred Scriptures, were extremely political when they spoke and wrote their prophecies.

At least they were political by our standards, and according to our definition of the term.

That’s something that had never struck me before—at least not in the way it did the other day.

But it’s so true!  Think, for example, of how often the prophets verbally attacked the wicked kings of Israel and Judah. 

They did it constantly—on almost every page of their writings!  They didn’t just mention principles, like we priests do.  They also named names!

The great prophet Samuel, for example, said to Saul (the very first king of Israel), “Because you did not obey God in dealing with the Amalekites, your kingship is over!  It’s finished!—and there’s nothing you can do to change that fact!”

That’s typical of how the prophets confronted their leaders when their leaders disobeyed God.

The prophets also meddled in what we would refer to today as “foreign policy.”  Jeremiah, for example, gave King Zedekiah advice on how to deal with the Babylonians and the Egyptians at a crucial moment in the history of Judah.  It was great advice; but, unfortunately, Zedekiah didn’t listen.

Even a good king like David was reprimanded by a prophet—the prophet Nathan.  It happened (as you will recall) after David had his little “fling” with Bathsheba.

So even the personal lives of the rulers were considered to be fair game for the prophets of Sacred Scripture!  Remember what John the Baptist used to tell Herod?  He used to say to him, “Herodias—the woman you’re living with—is the lawful wife of your brother Philip!  You stole her, Herod!  You’re committing adultery!”

And John never made any apologies for his words.

Needless to say, the prophets were really, really serious about their politics.  And they were never shy about expressing themselves on political matters.

Here, in the United  States, in 2012, they’d probably all end up in jail.

So it’s really a great blessing that you have us priests (and bishops and deacons) to simply remind you of the truths—the principles—that should guide you in the voting booth and in every other aspect of life.

More about that—from a special guest priest—in late October.

I’ll bet you can’t wait.