The prophet Amos who we heard from in our first reading came before the Gospel – about 760 years before the birth of Christ. And the news that he brought to the King of Israel was not exactly good news – the message Amos had for them was that the elite of the kingdom would be destroyed and sent into exile. Amos warned them that the Lord was going to punish them because they had become a wealthy, greedy nation, who oppressed the poor and worshiped false gods. They had ceased to follow the Lord and also mistreated the people of Judah to the south.
So the Lord sent Amos to Israel. Amos was not a likely candidate to serve as a prophet. He was a humble man – “a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores”, in his own words – from a village of Judah far to the south. However, the Lord called him to go, and he went. No doubt it must have been intimidating for him to travel to the king’s palace up north in the wealthy land of Israel to deliver this stern warning from the Lord. There he encountered Amaziah, who was appointed by the king to offer false worship in the temple. Amaziah of course tells him to get out, and “never again prophesy in Bethel.”
Amaziah, the king, the wealthy elite class of Israel – none of them wanted to listen to Amos because they did not like what he had to say. They did not particularly care for the fact that Amos was indicting them for their bad conduct and their false worship. Rather than be confronted by the uncomfortable truth that they were in error, they preferred to drive out and silence the Lord’s prophet.
When we hear the word “prophet”, we often think of someone who predicts the future. But the Biblical understanding of what a prophet is is broader than that – a prophet is one who proclaims the truth in general. And as baptized Catholics, we are all called to be prophets. We are called to be prophetic voices, proclaiming the truth to the world. How that looks in practice will vary from person to person, because God calls us to exercise our prophetic ministry in different ways. But yes, we are called by God to be his prophets to the world.
And just like in the time of Amos almost 3000 years ago, the world does not usually want to hear the truth. Just like the people of Israel during Amos’ time, people don’t normally like to hear that they are on the wrong path, that they are worshiping false gods of money, power, sex, politics, comfort, ideology, or whatever, and that these false gods will only lead to their own destruction. People would often much rather be praised and affirmed in all their choices and told they’re on the right path. Who wouldn’t? Receiving criticism is never easy. It’s easy to get defensive very quickly.
Even as a priest, there’s an implicit pressure from various directions to maintain the status quo, to affirm rather than to challenge, to avoid what is controversial. The problem though is that the status quo isn’t working, not in the Church and not in society. And another problem is that just about everything is controversial now. Probably just saying everything is controversial is itself controversial – someone somewhere will be outraged. Just about everything has been co-opted by politics or become a political issue. Church teachings which have been believed and taught from the beginning of the Church have become socially unacceptable and perhaps one day will even be illegal. It’s not possible to run away from the battle because the battle will eventually find you.
When Jesus sent out his apostles two by two for the first time, as we heard in our Gospel reading from Mark, he “gave them authority over unclean spirits” – he sent them out to cast out demons. He was sending them out to do spiritual battle against evil. And he told them that they were not always going to be welcomed, that not everyone would receive them. And Jesus said to them, “Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.” Shaking the dust off one’s feet was a “symbolic gesture of repudiation” (Mary Healy); it was a sort of prophetic warning to anyone who rejected the apostles’ message. Jews believed that the soil of Israel was holy, and when they re-entered their land after traveling in Gentile territory, they would shake the dust from their feet as a symbolic way of separating themselves from Gentile ways.
Perhaps some of this sounds harsh to our ears. But what Jesus is calling us to is not an attitude of self-righteousness; certainly, he condemns that attitude numerous times in the Gospels. Having received the good news of salvation ourselves, we shouldn’t think that we’re better than anyone else for it; rather, we should be humble and grateful for this gift. We should remember that to those who have been given more, more will be expected. And we should desire that others have the opportunity to hear this good news – that Jesus is our loving savior and that he desires our eternal salvation. And that following false gods does not lead to salvation.
Certainly one of the challenges to exercising our prophetic role is the reality of our own weakness and sinfulness. Many of the prophets wondered, “Who am I Lord, that you should send me?” Courage is necessary, so is prudence. And furthermore, because we too are sinners, there is always the danger of hypocrisy- that we ourselves don’t always live up to the standards we proclaim. So we should always have a spirit of humility and repentance. And we must also recognize that people may not accept us. But our aim should be fidelity rather than success. We leave the outcomes and the judgments up to the Lord.
And Jesus does not leave us to fulfill this mission on our own. We can have confidence that he is always with us and that he will provide for us. He sent his apostles out instructing them not to bring anything with them for the journey – he was asking them to put radical trust in God, that He would provide for their needs. Despite our own human weakness, perhaps our own sense of inadequacy to what God might call us to, we can trust that God will always be with us and will give us the grace that we need.