Prophecy is a tricky thing. Usually, when we use the term prophetic we mean that someone is challenging structures of sin and oppression. I am not writing about that kind of prophecy. I am referring to those who experience direct visions or voices from God. I know God can and does work in this manner, but my default posture is to be quite wary.
I have experienced several instances of this kind of prophecy in Catholic parishes. At one parish the head of a music group kept changing the music minister’s selections during Mass. When challenged, his response was, “I believe in prophecy,” meaning apparently that he believed God was telling him to change the music on the spot. St. Paul had a similar problem with unruly members of the assembly in Corinth. “The spirits of the prophet are under the prophet’s control,” he told them (1 Cor 14:32). Translation: Control yourself and fly right.
I also remember a prophet who channeled Jesus and the Blessed Mother every Wednesday night at a local Catholic church. Her spiritual coin lost a bit of value after she prophesied that half of California would be swallowed up by the ocean. She also told her followers that God wanted them to buy extra groceries for the refugees who would be coming. Some believers actually did buy surplus food.
In this week’s first reading, Moses predicts that the Lord will raise up “a prophet like me,” whose words the Lord will put into his mouth. If he is an authentic prophet, then Israel is commanded to listen to him. Anyone who does not listen will answer to God personally. But if he is not an authentic prophet, “he shall die,” God threatens. In the verse just after this reading, Moses gives only one criterion to determine a true prophet: “If his oracle is not fulfilled…the prophet has spoken it presumptuously” (18:21).
The context of Moses’ instruction is a contrast between how Israel comes to know God’s will and the Canaanites’ methods, including child torture, casting spells and consulting ghosts (vv. 10-11). Instead of these Moses anticipates authentic prophets. We recall with awe and gratitude the ministries of Isaiah, Jeremiah and all the powerful prophetic voices through Israel’s history.
Moses’ criterion is, however, not terribly helpful in the moment. If someone proclaims God’s will, you will know only after the fact (if then) whether he was an authentic prophet. Perhaps this is one reason Deuteronomy seems rather lukewarm on prophets. They are mentioned only one other time, and this as an example of false prophets (13:1-6). It is safe to say that Moses had much more confidence in the Torah than in prophets.
Still, we should not dismiss what Moses anticipates, especially since it directly applies to Jesus. In the Gospel, Jesus enters the synagogue and teaches the people. There he encounters a man with an unclean spirit, which he rebukes: “Quiet! Come out of him!” It immediately and dramatically does so. Twice in this short reading Mark tells us that the people were amazed at what Jesus taught. Mark focuses not on what Jesus said, but rather on his power and authority. The crowd’s response to Jesus is: “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands the unclean spirits and they obey him.”
With Jesus the problem of not knowing whether a prophecy will eventually come true or not seems to be solved. Jesus’ words cause what they say, and on the spot. He began his preaching with “the kingdom of God is at hand,” and immediately we see the kingdom unfold before us.
Prophecy is a tricky thing. Moses knew that, but he assured God’s people nonetheless that “a prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up.” Jesus shows that God is true to his word and then some. For we have One who is far greater than Moses (Heb 3:1-6), someone we should utterly trust, someone whose power makes what he says happen.