Learning from Our Priest/Prophets

Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue, James Tissot, 1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum

Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (detail),
James Tissot, 1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum
(About this Image)

When the sabbath came
he began to teach in the synagogue,
and many who heard him were astonished. 

And they took offense at him.
Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor
except in his native place…”
(Mark 6:2, 3-5)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 3:2-5
July 4, 2021

Priests and prophets are both important in the history of the Jews. They fulfill separate roles. Ideally, they work together, but as often as not, there was conflict. Before and during the exile in Babylon, we see the extortionary situation when priests became prophets. This is a sign of crises and has occurred in our own times.

The principal responsibly of the Jewish priest, as indeed the Catholic or Orthodox priest today, is to offer sacrifice. Originally, this was the privilege of the head of the clan or tribal group. We several times see Abraham offer a sacrifice to the Lord. Over the centuries this developed into the professional and hereditary priesthood. With Moses, this process was codified into Law and with Solomon, sacrifice not only needed to be performed by a hereditary priest but only at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Prophets have an even more complicated history. True prophets would now be considered men and women called by the LORD to bring a message to his people in a time of crisis. Thus, the classical prophets of the 8th century BC, First Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, were called when the unjust practices of the rich were fundamentally changing Israelite society Their denunciations of this were so powerful that we read them today.

The prophets called during the Babylonian exile both chastised the people for their faithlessness to the Lord and assured them that they were not to be destroyed, but chastened and reformed. The two great prophets of the exile were Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Both were priests.

We will look at Ezekiel today. He was born and spent his early years in Jerusalem. When Jerusalem rebelled against Babylon and was conquered in 597 BC he was one of the leaders that was deported to Babylon. As a person with education, he would have been useful to his captors in their bureaucracy but as a priest without a temple his religious purpose was seemingly over. And yet:

On the fifth day of the month, the fifth year,
that is, of King Jehoiachin’s exile,
the word of the LORD came
to the priest Ezekiel, the son of Buzi,
in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar.—
There the hand of the LORD came upon me.

(Eze 1:2-5)

He receives a blinding vision of the throne room of God. It is very detailed and may or may not have definite references to his time. That is not particularly important. The very majesty of it is a sign that the God of his Fathers is no local deity but can reach them in the very stronghold of Babylon, His covenant with his people still endures and indeed will strengthen.

For the people, the convent with God would have required sacrifice in the temple, without it how could they maintain this relationship. All would be confused, and many would have despaired and would worship the Gods of Babylon. The section that we read today comes immediately after this long vision of the majesty of God. Ezekiel receives his orders.

As he spoke to me, spirit entered into me and set me on my feet,
and I heard the one who was speaking  say to me:
Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites,
rebels who have rebelled against me;
they and their fathers have revolted against me to this very day.

(Eze 2:3)

As Ezekiel will tell his people repeatedly and unsparingly, they are in this situation because they refused to accept the leadership of God and thus rebelled against him. Many verses of this book review with the people the events that led to this disaster and what they mean, God tells him that for this he should not expect to be well received but

whether they heed or resist—
for they are a rebellious house—
they shall know that a prophet has been among them.

(Eze 2:5)

A prophet reveals the presence of God both in judgement and mercy. He is not bound by time or place but speaks God’s word and that alone to the people.

This is brought out very powerfully in the section of Ezekiel which follows our reading today:

As for you, son of man, obey me when I speak to you:
be not rebellious like this house of rebellion,
but open your mouth and eat what I shall give you.
It was then I saw a hand stretched out to me, in which was a written scroll
which he unrolled before me.
It was covered with writing front and back,
and written on it was:
Lamentation and wailing and woe!

(Eze 2:8-10)

Son of man, he then said to me,
feed your belly and fill your stomach
with this scroll I am giving you.
I ate it, and it was as sweet
as honey in my mouth.

(Eze 3:3)

The prophet does not speak for himself but for God. It may be a difficult message to hear but as it is from God it is “sweet as honey” to speak.

Although Ezekiel died before the people were offered a way back to Jerusalem, he assured them in the name of God that they would return and rebuild the temple. Although the task was difficult and dangerous enough accepted that the temple was rebuilt, and its worship restored. There truly was a prophet among them.

And it is significant that he was a priest. Great prophecy emerges from powerful usually painful experiences. We previously noted that the professional and hereditary priesthood could perform its tasks only in the temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel was now unable to offer sacrifice, the meaning of his life was taken from him. I think of the priests who in the last century were in jail in China and Russia and unable to celebrate Mass for years perhaps decades. This gave Ezekiel a particularly keen understanding of both the LORD’S power but also his desire not to sever his bond, covenant, with his people. His anguish is the author of his insight.

For ancient Jews and for Catholics and Orthodox today, sacrifice is the “normal” means of connecting with God. The center of the priest’s life is the Eucharist and everything else radiates from this. When the Lord makes a priest a prophet, he is telling us that we are in an abnormal situation. Indeed, that the effectiveness of the Eucharist is compromised. In our time the situation has become so dire that he has used popes.

You have heard the social teaching of the Church from the pulpit of St. Charles many times. It is sobering to remember that this was developed from the top down. Pope Leo XIII seeing society begin rent apart by unfettered laissez-faire capitalism wrote Rerum Novarum, (Of New Things) in 1891. This was not a response to a great clamor from the bishops and laity and was indeed rather unexpected, not well understood, and heroic efforts were made by the higher clergy to cripple it. Like the great classical prophets of the Old Testament, he realized that a fundamental shift was occurring in society and that it would be a “covenant breaker” and the Eucharist would be either distorted or ignored.

His successors realized the same and deepened and sharpened his insights and vision. These teachings have been enthusiastically accepted by some and fought by others, but our popes did not think they could be priests unless they were prophets.

The Jews who returned to Jerusalem were aware that the Lord had given them a second chance. That they are a vital religious group today shows that, however imperfectly, they responded positively to this opportunity. We are returning from the exile of COVID. Our success in this new normal will based on how well we imitate the teaching of our modern-day priest/prophets. Will our entire community be renewed because the Eucharist is celebrated in the Church of St. Charles and lived by the people of St. Charles?