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Called to Be Prophets
by Stephen Bevans, SVD | January 26, 2012
Scripture Reflection for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (January 29, 2012)
Psalm 98:1-2, 6-7, 7-9
1 Corinthians 7:32-35
Most probably a lot of people who read today’s second reading would feel pretty uncomfortable about it, because Paul gives the impression that he is somehow against marriage. In addition, this passage has been used down the ages to argue that religious life and celibate priesthood is a better, higher state of life, a closer following of Christ.
This is certainly not what we would say today, especially those of us associated with Catholics on Call. Vatican II, we would point out, insists that marriage is a holy state of life, a sacrament of God’s love for humankind. It also insists that all Christians are called to holiness, and that there is a fundamental equality among all members of the People of God. In addition to this, Vatican II’s document on the church and the one on priesthood point out that the difference between lay and ordained Christians is not one of degree, but one of kind or essence. Ordained Christians as well as members of religious communities, in other words, are not “super Christians.” Rather, while they hold different responsibilities in the church and in the world, they are all called to live out their discipleship in an active way.
In the context of his time, Paul’s concern in this passage of the first letter to the Corinthians is precisely that Christians recognize this call to discipleship and service. In his mind, Christ’s second coming was very close—a few months or certainly a few years away—and he didn’t want anything or anybody to interfere with Christians’ readiness to welcome in the Reign of God. In a culture in which marriage was much more understood as a contract regarding property—the wife was the husband’s property, the wife belonged to the husband—Paul is urging Christians not to get involved in such complexities if they can help it. This passage needs to be read together with the second reading last week that comes just before this passage—not only should Christians not worry about marriage, but about joy and sorrow, buying and owning property as well. What matters is dedication, and so believers have to put everything else in their lives in second place. “The form of this world,” we read last week, “is passing away.”
Such dedication is also the essence of being a prophet, about which the first reading and the gospel speak today. This is the way Moses was. He was totally dedicated to his service of Israel and God’s vision for it. This is also the way of Jesus, the one who fulfills Moses’ prophecy in today’s first reading from the book of Deuteronomy. Moses, in his fierce dedication to God’s work, was a person of awesome authority, and Jesus, the gospel says, was a person of the same quality. He spoke, the gospel says, not like the scribes, but with authority. One commentator on this passage suggests that the scribes taught with “authorities,” that is, they just quoted the law and the prophets and the many customs of the culture. Jesus spoke with “authority;” it was something that came from deep inside him, from his wholehearted dedication to God’s mission, which he so fully embodied.
Christians are also prophets. Those of us who believe in Jesus’ Lordship share his mission and share his authority. Once again, it is Vatican II that insists that Christians share in the three-fold ministry of Jesus: we are kingly people, people who rule by serving, as St. Augustine put it. We are priestly people because we all have direct access to God in prayer and offer the sacrifice of our daily lives. And we are a prophetic people because we all share the privilege and duty of preaching the gospel and witnessing to its power by the way we live. We have experienced this prophetic witness in the great saints of history—from Paul himself, through the martyrs, the great mystics like Julian of Norwich and Hildegard, founders of religious orders like Vincent de Paul or Teresa of Avila, or more modern prophets like Charles de Foucault, Dorothy Day, Chiara Lubich, Thea Bowman, and Cesar Chavez. But we also see how Christians share in Jesus’ prophetic ministry when we witness to one another, share in Bible study groups, or pray together.
Our readings this week point once again to the fact that we are “Catholics on Call.” Whether we have discerned our call to religious life, or to ordained ministry, or to the various ministries open to lay Christians, we are called to be prophets. We are called to that dedication that so captured Paul. We are called to exercise that authority that so possessed Jesus. As the song puts it: “We are called to act with justice, we are called to love tenderly, we are called to love one another, and walk humbly with God.”
Stephen Bevans, SVD
Steve Bevans is Professor Emeritus at Catholic Theological Union and the Faculty Moderator for Catholics on Call. He is a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, an international missionary congregation, and served for nine years (1972-1981) as a missionary in the Philippines.
His publications include: Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004, with Roger Schroeder), Evangelization and Freedom (2009, with Jeffrey Gros), and Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009).
He is past president of the American Society of Missiology (2006) and past member of the board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America (2007-2009). In 2009 he was visiting lecturer at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, Australia, and in 2013 he was the only Catholic to speak at a Plenary at the Tenth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Korea.