Would You Recognize a Prophet?

“We are facing a moral crisis in this country,” began Father Peter Gyves, SJ, as he introduced Richard J. Clifford, S.J., Professor Emeritus at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, to lead our February workshop about the writings of the Hebrew prophets. The prophets preach social justice and the love of God. But who were the Hebrew prophets and how can we apply their teachings to life today? Attendees learned not only what the prophets teach us, but the history of the time in which they lived, providing context for how we can interpret their teachings and apply them to our society today.

Father Clifford talked about the prophets as “speaking truth to power” explaining that the prophets were counterweights to royalty, assuaging the fears of the people that having a king would be considered false adulation. Their role was to speak the truth – to carry the word of God – even when it was not what the powerful wanted to hear. They spoke to the needs for social justice in society, defending the poor and the weak. Father Clifford pointed out that the prophets who told the people what they wanted to hear rather than standing up for the truth are not the ones we remember and study today: “History remembers those who take a stand against injustice”.

Father Clifford also discussed the use of the word “judgement” in the old testament, defining it not in the way we use the word today, but describing it as an intervention. When the prophets spoke of God’s judgement, they were referencing his divine intervention in an unjust situation; correction rather than punishment. Judgement was not considered an end in which all was destroyed, but the opportunity to bring the world back into a state of justice for everyone.

An early question from the audience asked about the civil indignity in today’s political culture – “agree with me or I hate you”. Thinking of judgement as an intervention in an unjust action is a good lesson to apply to these modern times. He referenced his pride that the Christian and Jewish traditions insist upon treating people with dignity.

What lessons can we take away from the prophets that can be applied to the world today? The prophets denounce misusing religion. The audience, engaged by this concept, asked questions and participated in a discussion about how to prevent the misuse of religion and to restore society’s faith, returning to the concept of speaking truth to power and God’s message to respect the dignity of all of mankind. We have a responsibility through God to speak honestly and tell the truth, even if the truth hurts. Father Clifford gave examples of prophets who admitted to and atoned for their sins rather than denying them or lying.

The prophets we study today also weren’t afraid to stand up for what they believed was right and just. Father Peter closed the conversation with the final thoughts that worship and words must be followed by action and the recognition of the dignity of all people.