The first of the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses forbids idolatry. That is to say, the First Commandment forbids us from pretending that something small and finite is of infinite importance. However, sometimes we’re tempted by the opposite danger. Instead of making finite things infinite, we take the infinite God and reduce Him down to something small and maybe even trivial.
One way that Christians are tempted to do this is by reducing the Christian Faith to nothing more than a relationship between “me and Jesus”. The Faith is reduced to something subjective, to the exclusion of the Church that Jesus founded. Of course, it’s much simpler for a Christian to focus entirely on “me and Jesus”, because then you sidestep the many real pitfalls that come with the Church: all those “others” who are so difficult to deal with.
However, the temptation to shrink God down to a more comfortable size doesn’t stop there. Even when we accept Jesus’ invitation to live as Christians in the midst of the Church that He founded, there’s the temptation to shrink the Church down to a simpler size. There are many ways to shrink the life of the Church. Today’s Scripture passages focus on one aspect of the Church’s life that’s often a target for that shrinking process. This aspect is the prophetic mission of Jesus’ Church.
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The mission of the Church on earth is to carry on, or propagate, Jesus’ work as the Messiah. The years that Jesus spent in public ministry—culminating in the work of Holy Week—show us the work that God is wanting the Church to carry on in His Name. There are three aspects to the work that Jesus carried out as the Messiah. The three roles that Jesus carried out are (1) prophet; (2) priest; and (3) king.
At different points during the Church year, we focus on one or another of these three roles. Today, on this 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, we’re focusing on the work of prophecy. Remember, this work of prophecy is not only Jesus’ work: it’s also the work of that Church that Jesus founded when He walked upon this earth.
Jesus’ three roles as Messiah are prophet, priest, and king, and in that order. The work of the prophet is first, and for an important reason. Today’s Gospel Reading points to this reason. Today’s Gospel Reading comes from Chapter 6 of St. Mark’s Gospel account. That’s Chapter 6 out of the 16 chapters that make up St. Mark’s Gospel account. The mission on which Jesus sends the apostles in today’s Gospel Reading is preparatory. Metaphorically, this mission is not the work of harvesting the crops, or even the planting the seed. It’s more akin to simply tilling the soil, or even breaking up the soil where there are clods.
In this preparatory mission, the apostles are sent to preach repentance, to drive out demons, and to anoint and cure the sick. Here the Twelve apostles get people to turn away from what is profoundly negative—that is, sin and disease—to prepare them to receive something profoundly positive: the life of God Himself. At this point, their mission is akin to that of St. John the Baptist. Remember the cry of St. John the Baptist: “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. …. He must increase, but I must decrease” [John 3:28,30]. The prophet prepares the way for the King.
The Church throughout the twenty centuries of her history has continued the work of this preparatory mission. For some 2000 years, the Church has preached repentance, exorcised demons, and anointed the sick. Part of this work, of course, is reserved to the clergy, but part of this work belongs to each and every member of the Church.
The role of the prophet is a role that every baptized Christian is responsible for carrying out. At the celebration of the Sacrament of Baptism, moments after the ritual of baptism has occurred, the priest takes Sacred Chrism in order to anoint the crown of the head of the newly baptized, and declares:
“Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has freed you from sin, given you new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and joined you to His people. He now anoints you with the Chrism of salvation, so that you may remain as a member of Christ, Priest, Prophet, and King, unto eternal life. Amen.”
As a prophet, each Christian is called to speak out against what is evil. This is the role of the prophet. This is what we hear Amos doing in the First Reading, even though he is not sure he wants to. Yet in the First Reading we hear something else characteristic of our own discipleship. Not only do we often not want to speak the truth. Often, others don’t want us to speak the truth. Not only was the prophet Amos not accepted. He was officially chased out of the country.
As he was being rejected, Amos made statements that we ourselves might offer for not speaking up against evil. He proclaimed that he had never received any formal training as a prophet. He didn’t know for sure how to speak to others. He didn’t know what exactly God might have to say to them. Amos’ call is like that of the apostles to whom Jesus is speaking in today’s Gospel passage, and also to each of us in the 21st century. But this is one of the many areas of our lives as Christians where God calls us to trust in the Power of the Holy Spirit, to give us the words that we need to speak: in truth and in love.