Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the second book of Kings. The prophet Elisha was on the road when a wealthy woman invited him to stay the night. She then suggested to her husband that they make a room for him because “he must be a holy man of God.” On one of the trips Elisha retired to his room and wondered aloud what could be done for her. His servant answered that they were childless. Elisha then called the woman and told her that by this time next year she would have a son. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus told his followers that anyone “who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me.” He then said that anyone who welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.
Last week I spoke about how difficult it may be to speak truth to power, to be the pain in the neck that everyone avoids. Today I’d like to look at prophecy from a different angle: there are times when we need to recognize the prophets among us.
And let’s face it: these are readings that can easily go off into other directions. In our first reading we find a wealthy woman who is childless. We all know couples who struggle with infertility. In Biblical times couples who couldn’t conceive were often thought to be cursed by God. And there were times when God uses fertility to show his blessing and this is true in this case. Even today couples who struggle to conceive are often told that “it’s God’s will” even though that describes a God who gives the couple a desire for a child they can’t have.
And if that weren’t enough, Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that we must prefer him over our father and mother (and I am writing this on Father’s Day of all days).
But I think the heart of today’s readings come a little later in the Gospel: “Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will have a prophet’s reward; and anyone who welcomes a holy man because he is a holy man will have a holy man’s reward.”
We live in a world where we are bombarded with “free” advice. Most of that advice is (or should be) easy to ignore: the TV commercial who wants to let you in on a get rich quick scheme that will only get him rich. The telemarketer who breathlessly tells you that your ship is in but the clock is ticking. The televangelist who promises if you send him money, God will reward you with riches of your own.
But others are harder. A few years ago I had a friend who was living here in San Diego and he felt he wasn’t going anywhere in his career. He felt he was never going to make enough money to purchase a house or even a condominium. And a friend of his from across the country suggested that he move where they could start a business together. This decision had red flags all over it, but to him it was the answer to all his problems. On one hand several of his friends cautioned against this. On the other hand he regularly listened to a televangelist who encouraged all his viewers to ignore those who dissuade you from the decision you want to make. And you can guess what happened: he listened to the evangelist, moved across the country, had several arguments and the business never happened.
And honestly, it could have gone another way. They could have been the next Hewlett and Packard, the next Harley and Davidson, the next Ben and Jerry. And his decisions only make sense in hindsight.
But prophets call us to our best decisions. They don’t necessarily call us to decisions that will make our lives easier or will make us wealthier or more popular.
Instead we are called to decisions that will make us to be more loving or kind. I have a friend who works in an office building. He makes a point to learn the names of the custodians and greets them by name every day. He recognizes that they may well be the prophets or holy (wo)men that Jesus told them about. They may never make us popular or beautiful but I think they will make us more kind, and our outreach may make them less cynical and more king themselves.
I work with people at the end of their lives. When they look back on their lives they generally live with few regrets. And when I ask them about the people who were most important in their lives they answer with enthusiasm. They tell me about parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, and friends. They tell me about someone who singled them out and told them they could accomplish more than they thought.
Sometimes it’s not one person. Elisha saw the wealthy woman as someone in need of blessing but didn’t know what she needed. But Elisha’s servant Gehazi did know what she needed: a baby. Only because of their shared insights were they able to provide what she needed.
But here’s the thing: we don’t choose whose prophesies we should listen to and I think this is what Jesus was pointing to. We know who we want to listen to, and for many it’s our immediate family or our circle of friends, or those people who agree with everything we say.
In our first reading it’s a win/win: the wealthy woman, Elisha, Gehazi all liked each other and the prophecy was easy to hear.
But the prophets in our lives are the teachers who push us (and annoy us). Or the boss who sees in us something we’d rather not acknowledge (we can do much more by working harder). Or a spouse who cares enough about us to risk our anger.
Let’s face it: we are going to spend our lives discerning what we should do. Part of that means we need to decide who to listen to. And sometimes it means making the difficult decision to pay attention to someone we didn’t want to listen to.