June 18-19, 2005, Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A
How many people here are prophets? If you have been baptized in the Catholic Church then you are a prophet. Week after week now we have baptized new Catholics at Mass. After we baptized them with the water that represents dying to Christ and rising then to new life in Christ, we anoint them with the holy Chrism and pray over them, “As Christ was anointed priest, PROPHET, and king, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.” A prophet is one who speaks God’s word. And as we hear today in both the first reading and the Gospel, a prophet’s life is full of danger and discouragement. So we prophets would do well to listen to these readings.
Poor Jeremiah. He is beset on every side with persecution and harassment. He is ordered by the priests not to prophesize; he scourged; he is thrown down a well and left to die; he is imprisoned; and finally he is dragged off to Egypt against his will to die in exile.
Jesus warns his disciples as he sends them off to proclaim the kingdom of God that he is sending them like sheep among the wolves, that they will be scourged, and all will hate them.
Both Jeremiah and Jesus speak of having the courage to face all these trials and persecutions because God is with them. But they express this sense of a God who is involved with, and concerned for, and protective of his people in quite contrasting ways.
Jeremiah proclaims a God who is a champion, in the sense of a military champion, one who defeats the enemies of his friends, putting them to shame and confusion. Jeremiah’s sense of the God who is with him is one of power and vengeance. Jesus talks of God who is with us as a parent, one who knows us intimately, and is aware of the smallest details of not only our body but of our hearts and minds.
I would suggest that we have to be very careful here. Language about God is very important because it is the result of how we think about God and at the same time it shapes how we think about God. And as I mentioned a few weeks ago, we humans have this tendency to turn symbols into realities. The fundamental principle we need to remember any time we speak about God or listen to talk about God is that all speech about God is symbolic. God is essentially unknowable. St. Augustine said, “if I understood then I have not understood God.” In other words, anytime I start thinking I have a handle on who God is, I have lost sight of God.
This is the very thing that God warns us against in the first commandment. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.”
We tend to think the only kinds of false god this is talking about are statues or other physical objects. But we can just as easily turn a symbol or analogy about God into a false god if we simply forget that all talk about God misses the mark.
If we listen to Jeremiah’s description of God there is a danger we can cast God into the form of a human king or general who wages battle against other humans who attack us. We can start to think of God as favoring US, and being against THEM. Jeremiah is caught up in the closeness he feels to God in his trials, and uses that symbol of military champion to express this. I say danger here because this false god can be used to justify all kinds of oppression and aggression against others, as we have seen perhaps more clearly as the target than we have seen when we were the aggressors.
And what about Jesus’ description of God as a caring parent? The danger here is that we cast God in the form of a male God because we get stuck on the word Father, when it is clear that God is neither male nor female. I say danger because this particular false god has been used over and over again throughout history to devalue women, and to justify male oppression of females. Or the danger is that we take the analogy of parent to be the reality of God, and wonder why a caring loving parent who knows when any sparrow falls to the ground doesn’t somehow save that sparrow.
The symbols and analogies and metaphors that we use when we talk about God are not God. When we multiply the symbols and analogies and metaphors we can start to get a deeper sense of the mystery who is God but in the end the truest experience we have of God is the experience of being loved. For most of us, we experience this love from other humans. And that is the good news that we are called on, as prophets, to proclaim. We are to make God known the way Jesus did. Yes he used many, many, symbols and analogies and metaphors but in the end he makes God known by loving us to death.
As you go forth as prophets, this is the God you are to speak of, and for. So fear no one. Make known this God who is mystery by loving those in your life.