In a society where people are living in abject poverty and great difficulties like in Nigeria, Religion, in the words of Karl Max, “becomes the opium of the masses” who are impatiently in search of solutions to their problems. Sometimes, when difficult situations break us down, our sense of reasoning decreases and our emotions increases. At this point, we become gullible and practically ready to do anything our religious leaders tell us. In view of this, today’s liturgy draws our attention to the true prophets of God and false prophets who are ready to manipulate and exploit the gullible Christians.
How do we know and differentiate them? In the first reading, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Moses promised the people that a true prophet like him will come when he said, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you…” (Deut. 18:18). The Lord said to Moses, “I will put my words in his mouth… but the prophet who presume to speak a word in my name or other gods, that prophet shall die” (vv. 18.20). Each time we reflect on false prophets, I remember the words of Bishop Hyacinth Egbebo MSP, who often tells his priests, “Do not tell my people the Lord said, when the Lord has not said anything to you.”
This is to guide his priests against presumption as it is often used. The true prophet speaks for God, but the false prophets speaks presumptuously. Little wonder Psalm 19:13 affirms, “From presumptuous sins, retrain your servants.” While it is true that one may need to learn how to flow in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, no one should speak presumptuously; unless he/she is assured the message is from God. Some Christians do not help matters in this regard. Due to difficulties, setbacks, joblessness, childlessness, life partners or progress/success in business and other challenges, they just want to hear only the juicy words of the prophets. With this, many priests and pastors are tempted to give them what they want to hear and in return, may get some material resources from them.
This is achievable in direct or indirect manner, when they ask them to buy only the products or articles of faith they produce, which could be in form of candles, stickers, handkerchief, wristband, T-shirts, oil and its likes. These objects of faith are not bad in themselves, but some motives behind it (not all) becomes questionable. The false prophet can also go to the extent of making gullible Christians panic by mystifying their challenges or difficulties which simple reasoning or rationality can resolve. When Christians are so much in search for miracle working pastors and priests than Jesus Christ himself, then they can easily fall into the hands of false prophets. We may likely ask; how do we know a presumptuous or false prophet? Simply by their accuracy.
If this is faltered, then their own discernment and ability to hear from God are rightly called into question. However, a true prophet can also err when he or she looses contact with Christ, the true and ideal prophet Moses spoke about in the first reading that God will raise among his people. Like Moses, the prophet would command the attention of the nation, he would be mediator between God and man and the prophet will speak God’s words. While some thought, that John the Baptist was this prophet (Jn 1:19-20), John 6:14; Acts 3:19-26. 7:37 affirms that Jesus is this prophet. The Gospel according to Mark presents to us Christ as the ideal prophet, who commenced his public ministry from Galilee where he called the first four disciples, and has moved to the Synagogue in Capernaum, where he began to exercise his teaching and healing ministry.
Entering the Synagogue reminds us that the Synagogue was originally a school of faith, to preserve and teach the Scripture, and to gather people for prayers. The function of the Scribes were to read and explain the Scripture from the Old Testament. However, the Scribes taught in the Synagogues by simply passing down what they had learnt in schools from the Rabbis. The more the Scribes quoted the Rabbis, the more authoritative their teachings were thought to be. When Jesus taught in the Synagogue, he made a difference by giving fresh interpretation and new insight to the Scripture, teaching and quoting himself often than quoting the prophets or Rabbis.
His teaching made more impression that the people were astonished because he spoke with authority as the giver of the Law, which equate him with God. In his authority, he cast out demons and cured the man with unclean spirit, who addressed him saying, “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mk 1:24). We can draw two lessons from this, first, the one Moses spoke of, has come to destroy the kingdom of Satan and establish the Kingdom of God.
Second, in ancient time, knowing a person’s name was thought to provide power over the person and so the unclean spirit tried to take advantage of this but Christ proved too powerful by driving the evil spirit away, with authority and they obeyed him. The Church continues with the teaching and healing ministry of Christ, with the authority Christ himself has handed over to the Church. St. Paul in the second reading helps us to understand that the teaching of the Church on religious leaders, virginity and marriage must be upheld with undivided attention.
On this note, I call on my brother priests in the ministry and to all religious leaders [whom the gullible Christians so much rely on and hold tenaciously every word that falls from our mouth], to be sincere and truthful in our ministries and Christ the ideal Priest, Prophet and King will prosper us as we work in his vineyard. To all Christians in the world, let us not run after men of God and forget the God of the men. Let us all respond to our vocations diligently, with undivided heart. Many would want to shy away from this truth because of what they stand to lose. Let me quickly remind you of the hard teaching of Christ on the Eucharist when he said, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
After this teaching, the crowd left him and he turned to his disciples and said, “Are you also going to leave?” Peter answered saying, “To whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life” (Jn 6:67-68). Let us not be afraid of loosing parishioners or members at the detriment of who we are, said Bishop Onah. A true prophet does not compromise or sugar-coat God’s message and teaching, only false prophets do. May God bless his words in our hearts, through Christ our Lord. Amen!