15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Recognizing the credible and prophetic voices among us today.
On Friday I had lunch with my cousin who is a former principal at a Catholic grade school and a soon-to be-retired professor of literature at a community college. She asked my father, a retired teacher, what he thought about the ability of young people today to think critically when approaching problems. She mentioned an article she read recently that showed that skills and problem solving in one area or subject did not seem to transfer readily to other subject areas for many students. Why was that? Is critical thinking not being taught in school any more? How did we learn it? My father recalled his father who didn’t have a formal education past the 8th grade but was a skilled carpenter who could design and fix just about anything that was needed for his home. My father learned critical thinking and problem solving more from watching his father than anything he learned in a college course. You learn from experience what works and what doesn’t work. Critical thinking means experimentation. Putting your ideas to the test and adjusting as you go and being open to new ideas and perspectives and putting them to the test as well. That’s “science” - the scientific method. Success, in science, as well as in life, is a process that requires a lot of risk and a lot of failures. The most successful people are not just “lucky” but the ones who have failed the most and kept on trying - kept on learning - and kept on adjusting. There is a tendency today that might be more pronounced than ever that we are afraid of risk and afraid of failure. We just want to be told the right answer - told what to do - and if nobody gives us the answer, we feel stuck - at a loss for what to do and what to believe. In this situation, we argue or decide what to do by an appeal to authority, and usually “authority” is defined by someone’s professional position or the degrees they have after their name. We often hear the argument, “the consensus among leading scientists is that…” but such an argument itself is not a scientific argument - an argument based on “science” or critical thinking. Just because someone is in a position of authority does not mean everything they say is true. Likewise, the truth can be discovered and spoken by people without “authority”, and just because they don’t have authority on their own does not mean that what they say should be dismissed out of hand and not believed. To believe the person in authority simply because of his position or to dismiss what is said by the person without authority is to not be a critical thinker.
The Lord wants us to be critical thinkers. He does not want us to be blind followers. He’s given us a mind and the ability to judge. To receive the truth requires our freedom. The truth is always proposed, not imposed. If someone is trying to force the “truth” on us, there is something suspect about the proposal. Jesus sends the Apostles out two by two to preach repentance - to preach the Gospel. And in his instruction to them, we see what makes them credible witnesses to the truth. In doing so, the Lord gives us a guide on who is a credible witness or not - a way to judge whether we should believe someone or not, regardless of their “authority.” The authority the Apostles have is not based on their own merits, but it is an authority that is given to them based on the fact of their call - that they have been summoned and sent by the Lord for this mission. They are to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick - “no food, so sack, no money in their belts.” Why is this “poverty” so important to their mission? The lack of a sack means that they could not even accept provisions from others for the journey. They had to depend, day by day, on God’s providence. It would become clear to themselves and to other who saw them that their success was not the result of their own resources or a result they could purchase or bargain for, but was coming from God’s grace. Their lack of material possessions lent credibility to their message since it demonstrated that they were preaching the gospel out of conviction rather than a desire for gain. The conviction of the truth is rooted in the personal encounter with Jesus who has chosen them not based on their merits but because of his love for them. The mission and journey they are on is meant to verify for them this relationship of gratuitous love and for that merciful love to be the content of their preaching. The freedom with which they go on mission becomes a witness that it is the relationship with Jesus that brings freedom and fullness to life, not material possessions. They are instructed to stay in whatever house they enter until they leave that place. This instruction is most likely for two reasons: 1) so they do not seek to upgrade their accommodations (I’m not doing this for earthly benefits or advantage) and 2) so that the townspeople do not try to jockey for the prestige of hosting the apostles. Jesus knew that as soon as they began to heal and cast out demons, they would become in a sense celebrities. This is an added temptation or distraction - to be doing it for the fame or the lime-light - to be in the public eye. A lot of praise would soon be coming their way. One is not an authentic prophet or witness - one lacks credibility - when the focus is directed to oneself - when one holds oneself up as the “savior” - that this is “my job” to do this work rather than my vocation - a response to a gift God has given me that does not depend on me. When that happens, keeping the job becomes more important than serving the mission. It becomes about me and not Jesus. We see this distinction between job and vocation in the exchange between Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, and the prophet Amos who was sent by the Lord to the Northern Kingdom to preach conversion to the “successful and powerful” who became accustomed to their power and distanced themselves from the Lord. Amaziah is a “professional” priest of high rank - close to reigns of power - close to the king, and he tells the king that what Amos is saying is fomenting a conspiracy against the king. What Amos is saying is a challenge to the narrative that all is good in the Northern Kingdom. “The country cannot endure all his words,” Amaziah says to the King. What Amos is saying is a threat to Amaziah’s power and the power structure he is a part of. Amaziah tries to silence the prophet - “Off with you” - “get out of here” - “go back to where you came from.” “There earn your bread by prophesying.” To Amaziah, prophesy is a way to “earn bread” - make money - its a job, not a vocation. Amos counters by saying, “Yes. I know. I’m not a professional prophet. I don’t have the credentials or the expertise that you have. I’m not in it for the money. In fact, I gave up my job as a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores - my source of income - because the Lord called me and sent me to bring this warning to Israel. This is not about me; it is about the Lord. In the face of this resistance, Amos does not stay quiet, but delivers the message. He chastises those who are taking advantage of the poor and the needy for profit - for greedy motives. Israel has been given so much and has grown rich, but their riches and power have become idols. This arrogance will be their downfall.
The prophets - ancient and modern - usually have little to gain and often much to lose or to risk because of their fidelity to the truth and their conviction to follow the truth. Our Lord challenges us today to become critical thinkers - open to the prophetic voice - and to become prophets in the world today. That is a call that comes with our baptism. We are not to follow the secular authority or even church authority simply because they are in positions of power. The truth is one with love - a love that risks itself and is willing to lose itself for our salvation - not for love of gain. May that be our criteria for judgment when evaluating the many voices that say they know what is true and what can save us.