A reflection on the readings for Sunday, July 4, 2021 — the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings are about prophets. If you ask the average person what a prophet is, they will likely say, “someone who predicts the future.” This really isn’t accurate, and unfortunately it obscures the challenging and even dangerous task of the prophet.
The Old Testament reading is about the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a priest who was exiled with the king of Judah a few years prior to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the first temple. Needless to say, things were already hard on Ezekiel, being a priest without a temple to serve in and being forcibly removed from his home. On top of all that, God called him to be a prophet, in other words, to deliver God’s message: “But you shall say to them: Thus says the LORD GOD!” (2:4).
The prophet is God’s messenger, who often warns about dire consequences of persisting in certain sins, namely oppression of the poor and idolatry. In the Bible, God calls people of all different backgrounds, whether priest or farmer, young or old, male or female, to fill this role. He sometimes gives them the task of using unusual object lessons to accompany his message, and Ezekiel may have had the most bizarre of these demonstrations to perform (if you are curious, see chapter 4).
The calling of the prophets was not to predict the distant future. Rather, they spoke God’s message about their own present day. They usually referred to the future only insofar as the present action (or inaction) of their fellow Israelites would have future consequences. If they had only talked about the future, they wouldn’t have been so controversial.
One might think that a person giving God’s message would be listened to and honored, but there’s a reason we have the phrase “don’t kill the messenger.” The prophets were often persecuted because their words made people angry. They described abuse and corruption, especially by wealthy and powerful people, and they often relayed God’s wrath.
Today is the fourth of July, when we celebrate Independence Day in the U.S. The confluence of these readings about prophets on this holiday immediately brought to my mind abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
Early on in the speech, he mentions the Fourth of July in a positive way that we (and, I assume, his audience) would find customary: “It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God.” His tone begins to change as he shines a light on the hypocrisy of the celebrations:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
He is like a different biblical prophet, Amos, whose prophetic speeches begin with descriptions of God’s wrath pouring out on Israel’s enemies, a welcome message. A few paragraphs in, though, he turns it all on its head by describing God’s wrath against Israel. Amos similarly criticized feasting by those who oppressed the poor:
I hate, I despise your feasts,
I take no pleasure in your solemnities.
Even though you bring me your burnt offerings and grain offerings
I will not accept them;
Your stall-fed communion offerings,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me
your noisy songs;
The melodies of your harps,
I will not listen to them.
Rather let justice surge like waters,
and righteousness like an unfailing stream. (5:21-24)
It’s easy to see why some considered the prophets to be nuisances, or worse. The prophet seemed too serious, too negative, and too critical. Douglass deliberately used an occasion of national celebration as an opportunity to shine a light on a national atrocity. People today who similarly illuminate and decry injustices also frequently disrupt otherwise joyful moments to call for justice. Just as Douglass describes in his speech, many of us today who hear them think, annoyed: why can’t this be done at a different time, presented in a different way, delivered with a different tone?
In the Gospel reading, Jesus refers to himself as a prophet, acknowledging the tepid reception from some in his hometown. Like the Old Testament prophets, he had a message from God to deliver. Of course, Jesus was not only a messenger of God, but the Message, God’s Word incarnate. Like many of the prophets, he was also persecuted and even put to death.
Today’s readings, and their occurrence on Independence Day, are a reminder to be grateful for and listen to those who shine a light on injustice and cry out for change. I think especially of those inside and outside the Church who have and continue to call attention to the sex abuse scandal, the injustices against indigenous people and the oppression and neglect of indigenous children, homophobia, racism, sexism, and corruption all of which would otherwise continue, largely out of sight. Ignoring them or reacting defensively is simply to persist in sin and injustice. Instead, we should see their similarity to the prophets, with whom Jesus also identified, and their criticisms should prompt us to listen and repent.
Image: Frederick Douglass, ca. 1847 by unknown author – National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24956631