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The Promise of Prophecy

Bill Kipp/Boston Public Library CC

John Singer Sargent Triumph of Religion - Boston Public Library C.5 Frieze of Prophets - Michah, Haggai, Malacci, Zechariah (East wall). Installed 1895 Photography by Bill Kipp 1999

Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 09/30/15

Is it hope or wishful thinking?

Question: How would you know if what you hope for is not the object of mere wishful thinking?

Answer: If the object of what you hope for has been promised by God’s prophets.

In my last two columns, I wrote, respectively, about the pain of the prophet, and about the limits of prophecy. Today let’s look at the promise of prophecy, understanding the promise as an object of true hope, and not the fantasy of wishful thinking.

Wishful thinking can be seen in those aspirations described as, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…?” These aspirations have no roots in fact, experience or reason. For example, if my students said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if Father McTeigue cancelled our final exam just because we looked tired?,” that would be a clear example of wishful thinking. Anyone who knows me knows it would be completely out of character for me to do such a thing. If this aspiration is contrary to the nature of the agent of the good we desire, then we can suspect that we are dealing with wishful thinking rather than genuine hope.

Another telltale sign of wishful thinking is if the aspiration does not include cost or cooperation on the part of the recipient of the good aspired to. For example, I was once in conversation with some folks about preparations necessary for preparing for hurricane season, e.g., stockpiling food, water, etc. One person dismissed my concerns. “I don’t worry about that, Father! I read about a saint who lived for years on nothing but Holy Communion!” I wanted to ask her if she planned to grow wheat in her basement (which she didn’t have) in order to make hosts for me to consecrate. Hers was a kind of wishful thinking that borders on presumption.

Real hope is a choice to make oneself available to cooperate with a future good. This can be illustrated by a comment made by the author Flannery O’ Connor as told to me by someone who was present at the conversation. When she was asked about how she was able to be such a prolific author, she said it was her custom to sit at her typewriter every morning between eight o’clock and noon. Someone asked, “What about inspiration?” She replied, “I can’t control whether inspiration will come, but if it does come, I want to be at my typewriter when it happens.”

What may we, here and now rightly hope for, we who are the heirs of the prophets? A perusal of the biblical prophetic literature suggests that we may hope for very great goods indeed. Below is just a sampling.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God promises His people: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.” (Isaiah 60:1-2)

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promises His people: “And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31-34)

And through the prophet Ezekiel, God promises His people: “‘I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,’ declares the Lord GOD.” (Ezekiel 34:15)

These and similar promises, proper objects of true hope, are to be found throughout the writings of the biblical prophets. These same prophets, while proclaiming the promises of God, also proclaim the stipulations of God. To receive the hoped-for blessings, one must first do the hard work of cooperating with divine grace for the repentance of sin and the conversion of life.

In a recent correspondence, I pointed out to a neighbor that true compassion for the sinner is never mere pity, that is, sad sentiments on behalf of the sinner’s pain. Compassion (from the Latin, cum-passio, “to suffer with”) requires that we work with the sinner to bring about repentance and amendment. Mercy is not the suspension of the moral order (in other words, evil can never be overlooked by God); mercy is the blessing upon the sinner who acknowledges God’s absolute holiness and sovereign justice. The Church as a “field hospital for sinners” does not deny the reality and lethality of the disease of sin, but instead offers a cure and not just comfort for the wounded. Likewise, the promises of God spoken through the prophets—the compassion, mercy and blessings offered by God—are offered on the condition that His people, as individuals and as a community, confess their sin, revile their sin, and embrace the call to righteousness.

Below are just a few illustrations of this point.

Through the prophet Ezekiel, God says to His people: “And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness; and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins.” (Ezekiel 33:12)

Through the prophet Zechariah, God says to His people: “‘Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. Be not like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, Thus says the Lord of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or heed me, says the Lord.” (Zechariah 1:3-4)

And through the prophet Joel, God says to His people: “‘Yet even now,’ says the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning’.” (Joel 2:12)

Acknowledging His own holiness, sovereignty and justice, God pronounces judgment on His people, and then extends His superabundant mercy to those who would repent of their sin and amend their lives. If our living of the forthcoming Year of Mercy is to be anything that the biblical prophets would recognize, our response to God’s offer of mercy must be rooted in a holy fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10), a revulsion at our own sin, a firm purpose of amendment, humble and zealous cooperation with grace, and a lively, well-founded hope to receive what God has promised to the repentant. Absent any of those elements, then there can be no mercy for us, then we shall be deaf to the prophets, and then we shall not have hope, but, at most, wishful thinking.

In these columns on prophecy, we have seen that the privilege of a prophet’s vocation is also a source of pain, for, while sharing in God’s anguish over sinners, he must speak God’s word to many who will find it unwelcome. We have seen the great power of prophecy for the working of conversion, while admitting that the words of the prophet are not magic—because human freedom, for good or ill, is never cancelled. And we have seen the promise of prophecy—offering real hope to those who trust God’s own promises to repentant sinners. The work of God’s prophets is not for those willfully blind, or those who are faint of heart, or those so shallow of soul that they cannot know either holy fear or holy gratitude. Before the Year of Mercy begins, we would do well to read and re-read the biblical prophets.

When I write next, I will begin a three-part series examining suicide—suicide as cultural, as communal and as civilizational. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.  A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

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