Moses Speaks to the People, James Jacques Joseph Tissot, c. 1896-1902, Jewish Museum of New York
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
January 31, 2021
People who believe in a God wish to have a connection and indeed be in communication with him or her. Religions differ on how, why, and by whom this is accomplished. These are important questions but as we will see today, they rest on the basic understanding of who God is.
Our Scriptures give us information about the people who were to become the Jews from about 1400 BC. Most of the Old Testament that we have today was compiled in its present form by 400 BC. There was much evolution in thought during this time, but there are key ideas and themes that become more prominent as the people’s relationship with God developed.
The first is that their God—the LORD—is a creator. He made the world. This was intentional and with love. Other deities at best may have formed the world out of pre-existing “stuff” sometimes accidentally and not for love. Indeed, there is often a sense of hated between humanity and divinity. As creator, the LORD was stronger than all other gods and in time, they saw other “gods” as demons. This eventually developed into the idea of fallen angels. (For further background, see the commentary on the first reading for September 2, 2018)
It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of this distinction. Because the Jews from very early days believed that they were created by a loving God, they knew that what he did for them would be for their good. People who believed in gods with base motives would accept the power of their gods to affect their lives but not always for their benefit. They also believed that they could change the mind of a god often with bribery or chicanery.
Thus, the indigenous people of Cannan where the Jews were to settle connected with their gods not only with a priest but also with: a fortune-teller, soothsayer, charmer, diviner, or caster of spells. one who consults ghosts and spirits or seeks oracles from the dead. (Dt 18:10–11)
These were people who sought to determine the divine will and then seek to change it for a price. Sometimes that ceremony would include sacrificing the life of one’s own child.
This is rightly seen as an “abomination.” It is because of this that the LORD is expelling them from the land and giving it to the Jews. (Dt 18:12) but such is the evil of reducing the LORD to an instrument for what human beings desire that he will cast them off if they do so. (Dt 18:19 )
The section which we begin today teaches how we are to communicate with the LORD.
A prophet like me will the LORD, your God,(Dt 18:15)
raise up for you from among your own kinsmen;
to him you shall listen.
This is not an imposition from the LORD but at their request:
This is exactly what you requested of the LORD, your God,(Dt 18:16)
at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said,
‘Let us not again hear the voice of the LORD, our God,
nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.’
Mt. Horeb was where Moses gave them the 10 Commandments and after their disobedience discovered the true power of the LORD:
The leaders of the people said to Moses,(Dt 5:24–25)
‘The LORD, our God, has indeed let us
see his glory and his majesty!
We have heard his voice from the midst of the fire and
have found out today that a man can still live
after God has spoken with him.
But why should we die now?
Surely this great fire will consume us.
If we hear the voice of the LORD, our God,
any more, we shall die.
The LORD does not disagree with this but approves their insight: And the LORD said to me, “This was well said.” (Dt 18:17)
This reflects what he said to them.
“The LORD heard your words(Dt 5:28–29)
as you were speaking to me and said to me,
‘I have heard the words these people have spoken to you,
which are all well said.
Would that they might always be of such a mind,
to fear me and to keep all my commandments!
Then they and their descendants would prosper forever.
Note that in obeying the words of the LORD not in seeking their own way will they prosper.
The prophet however is not an intermediary he or she cannot bargain with the LORD, the prophet speaks the word of God and that alone.
I will raise up for them a prophet(Dt 18:18)
like you from among their kinsmen,
and will put my words into his mouth;
he shall tell them all that I command him
Because it is the word of the LORD from the LORD it must be heard and obeyed:
If any man will not listen to my words(Dt 18:19)
which he speaks in my name,
I myself will make him answer for it.
A prophet has no purpose other than to communicate with the LORD. If he utters “prophecies” for any other purpose he will face the consequences:
But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name(Dt 18:20)
an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak,
or speaks in the name of other gods,
he shall die
Our section ends here today but the next two verses are interesting. A prophet does more than predict the future, but his words have real world consequences and if they remain mere words they are not from God.
“If you say to yourselves,(Dt 18:2)
‘How can we recognize an oracle
which the LORD has spoken?’, know that,
even though a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD,
if his oracle is not fulfilled or verified,
it is an oracle which the LORD did not speak.
The prophet has spoken it presumptuously, and
you shall have no fear of him
There two points to be made here.
As we noted, these ideas developed over time. When the idea of prophecy was forming, it was not seen as a major office or at least one that would be often used. (Dt 13: 1–50). It was assumed that the law itself given in Deuteronomy and Leviticus would have been enough for most people at most times. Yet prophets became major players when the monarchy was established and needed to be often corrected. The most frequent areas were on what we have come to call social justice. My suggestions for prophets of my time are Martin Luther King and Cardinal Cooke. (For a Brooklyn priest that last admission is difficult but acknowledging prophets who really had an effect should never be easy.)
Also, the original danger is still present. Do we honestly think of God as present in our lives but above our concerns? A great danger is to believe that the LORD is part of our plan for achieving wholeness. This is totally wrong; we are part of the LORD’S plan for the Kingdom. Let there be prophets among us to remind us that God is never our instrument; he is always our Lord.