When you hear or read the phrase “Old Testament prophet,” what image comes to mind? An old, weathered man carrying a staff, shouting and railing against the sins of the people? And what about “Paul the Apostle”? Perhaps someone similar — difficult, crusty and more than a bit judgmental? I think it is fair to say that for many people, including quite a few Christians, the Old Testament prophets and the Apostle Paul are figures fraught with negative associations. This is something I’ve mentioned before in this column, and it has so much to do with how many people — both within and outside the Church — perceive Catholicism: negative, condemning, harsh, humorless, judgmental, legalistic.
But, as I wrote here a few years ago, “we fail to comprehend and appreciate the true nature of the prophets if we overlook the virtue at the core of their persons and missions: love.” This doesn’t mean the prophets were sinless, but they persevered, filled with a love for God, who had called them to their often harsh and painful mission, and a love for God’s people, who so desperately needed to be admonished and wooed, reprimanded and coaxed.
“The prophet ill sustains his holy call,” wrote the 19th-century Irish poet, Thomas Moore, “Who finds not heav’n to suit the tastes of all.” God desires that everyone respond in obedience and love to his call, and the prophet issues that call, even in the face of rejection, mockery and death. That is true love.
This gracious love is active, but it is not just about action. This is a point emphasized by Pope Benedict XVI in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”). “St. Paul, in his hymn to charity (cf. 1 Cor 13), teaches us that it is always more than activity alone: ‘If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing’ (13:3)” (No. 34).
St. Paul was an often difficult man, with a driven personality and a penchant for blunt speech. He also was a mystic who had encountered the risen Christ and had been “caught up” to heaven (2 Cor 12:2). His hymn to charity, today’s epistle, is one of the greatest passages penned about love because of its truly radical vision: “ … if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
True love “rejoices with the truth,” bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things and enduring all things. Even faith and hope fade in the light of love, for in the presence of God, faith will have come to completion and hope will be fulfilled, leaving just love, the Beatific Vision.
Jesus, like Jeremiah, experienced rejection right from the start of his ministry. Having heard him declared the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, the people were amazed, then questioning, then antagonistic, “filled with fury.” Why? Because Jesus, the great and final prophet spoken of by Moses (Dt 18:15-19), had insisted the people recognize their need for a radical change of heart, perspective and orientation. An essential part of that change was understanding that God’s plan of salvation was for the Gentiles as well as for the Jews, as indicated by the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha.
The people interpreted Jesus’ message as a dismissal of their special status. In truth, it was a call to authentic conversion and to deep, abiding love, for love never fails.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.