What Makes a True Prophet?
This weekend, we listen to God's word delivered from the book of Deuteronomy. The underlying message is to listen to God, obey Him, and love Him with all your heart, soul, and strength.
Jesus taught that this was the greatest command. Everywhere we go, we should seek to love God. We are reminded that this attitude should pervade our worship, prayer, Bible reading, and relationships.
Interestingly, over the years, God has called people to help us focus on these challenges to listen to God, obey him and love him...but how do we know that those called are authentic? I guess the question more simply asked is: How can you tell a true prophet from a false one?
Surely, we've all heard of prophets...people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel - strange, charismatic figures whose words continue to inspire and convict us, but who are safely confined to the biblical era. We might also speak of other exceptional people like Mother Teresa as prophets, but I believe that such people are really few and far between.
Over the years, we have also seen that there are many people who claim to be prophets, but in fact are not. False prophets are all around us. They can be described as liking to be hero-worshipped, power-hungry and will not listen to Godly advice which is against their evil intentions.
Usually, they like to surround themselves with a "cult" of followers they can easily control, are spiritually empty and will always say yes to any un-godly instructions or advice. They are known to manipulate their ignorant followers either by force or subtly through false prophecies oftentimes putting fear into their disciples by threatening them that such members will not prosper if they leave.
False prophets wage war against true children of God by assassinating their characters, gossiping about them, sharing fake news, all in an attempt to cause confusion within the body of Christ.
So, how can you tell a true prophet from a false prophet? The question is not only important for us but was just as urgent for the audience that our text from Deuteronomy addresses.
After Moses - the pre-eminent prophet - dies, those ancient Israelites wondered how will they know the will of God? So how will they know who speaks for God? And more importantly, how do we? We hear in the Scripture:
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15).
God promises not to abandon the people to their own devices. From time to time, God would call a prophet to speak God's word to the people. This passage, however, came to be understood over the centuries as an eschatological promise...And eschatological is just a fancy term that simply means, what happens to us and everything in the end.
This concern about the end times does not seem to be at the heart of the matter for us in our readings today. The issue is not the end of the ages, but the present time, when we are in the muck and mire of everyday life. As God's people today, we still need to know who speaks for God.
So...in your mind, who speaks for God? There are lots of people who claim to speak for God today: prosperity preachers, self-help gurus, radio and TV preachers, religious bloggers galore, some politicians and perhaps even some of you...but who to listen to? Who speaks to God?
How do you distinguish between a true prophet and a false prophet? Deuteronomy gives us some guidance:
The true prophet does not seek to be a prophet. From Moses' long protest against God's call to Jeremiah's objection that he is "only a boy," no prophet in the Bible wants to be a prophet. It is something, instead, that they do because they cannot avoid God's call.
The true prophet seeks neither self-promotion nor riches. Many of the prophets put aside pride and dignity in order to engage in bizarre sign-acts, like walking naked in the streets of Jerusalem as we read in Isaiah 20 or lying prone on the ground for weeks on end as we read in Ezekiel 4.
The true prophet speaks God's word, not his or her own. Over and over again, the prophets declare, "Thus says the LORD." And they most often speak words that are uncomfortable, to say the least - words of judgment for their own people. True, they also speak words of comfort and hope, but almost always on the other side of judgment. The prophets are not advocates of the power of positive thinking... Their hope rests on God alone, not on their own power or worth.
The true prophet bears a "family resemblance" to what has come before. The prophets speak new words into new situations. While the Holy Spirit moves in new and unexpected ways, if the prophet's words contradict what we already know of God from Scripture, and our long-standing tradition, then the prophet should be suspect.
The true prophet and the false one too are known by his or her "fruit." Jesus himself warns, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits."
In short, we can ask:
Does the prophet (or preacher) lead others to be disciples of Jesus or of themselves?
Does his or her preaching lead to repentance and transformation or to complacency and self-absorption?
Who speaks for God? The answer requires discernment and prayer. Scripture gives us some guidelines, and there are more than what I have shared here.
In all that we do, of course, we are called each day to hear and discern the voice of God.
Further, as we hear and study God's Word, and as we are given the great privilege and the responsibility to proclaim it ourselves, as Catholic Christians, we too are called to do so with a healthy dose of humility, pointing always to Jesus, our great prophet, priest, and king, our brother, our Savior, and our friend!