In thinking about the prophets, we might picture them as men busy scolding and criticizing, somewhat imperious and even threatening. After all, their words were often combative, their exhortations harsh, and their demands for reform and repentance daunting. It would be easy, I imagine, for those listening in person to dismiss this or that prophet as an eccentric crank or a blind zealot.
But 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.
The entire drama of the prophets is the drama of love — of tough, divine love. It begins with God’s love, which is, of course, the source of all love. It overflows and brings about creation and the entire plan of salvation. That plan, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, stems “immediately from Trinitarian love. It unfolds in the work of creation, the whole history of salvation after the fall, and the missions of the Son and the Spirit, which are continued in the mission of the Church” (No. 257).
The Old Testament prophets were often reluctant, to the point that some tried to flee from God’s call. They were often afraid, discouraged and despondent. But God’s love for them, their response in love and their love for the people they were called to prophesy to were always the essential pieces of the prophetic puzzle. It was why they were willing to be mocked and scorned. “You cannot love a thing,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “without wanting to fight for it.” And fight they did — not with swords and armor, but with love and the word of God.
Yet they were consistently rejected; the books of the prophets in the Old Testament are magnificent, tragic stories of rejection. Jesus experienced this same rejection, and today’s Gospel indicates he fully expected such rejection. Those in the synagogue were initially amazed “at the gracious words that came from his mouth” as he read from the book of the prophet Isaiah (see Lk 4:14-20; Is 40:3-5). But Jesus, the great and final prophet spoken of by Moses (Dt 18:15-19), was intent on showing the people their need for a radical change of heart and perspective.
His remark, “No prophet is accepted in his own native place,” has sometimes been interpreted as a variation on the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” But the root problem was deeper than Jesus being apparently ordinary; it was the people’s refusal to embrace God’s plan of salvation for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. He refers to two stories from the books of Kings. The first was of the prophet Elijah who, seeking a hiding place for King Ahab, was sent by God to the widow in Sidon, on the Phoenician coast (see 1 Kgs 17:1-16). The second was of the prophet Elisha, who cured Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, of leprosy (2 Kgs 5:1-14). God, in other words, loves all men, and God’s prophets are for all people (Lk 2:32; 3:6).
This message infuriated the people, who interpreted Jesus’ message as a renunciation of their special status. But it was actually a call to authentic conversion. True love, as St. Paul describes in today’s reading, is patient, kind, not jealous, not pompous, and not self-seeking. It rejoices with the truth.
The prophets, because of love, spoke the truth. To some, they were blind zealots. To those with ears to hear, they were God’s messengers.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.