by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Amaziah, the priest of Bethel said to Amos: “Go away, seer; get back to the land of Judah; earn your bread there, do your prophesying there.”…Amos replied: “I was no prophet…I was a shepherd, and looked after sycamores: but it was the Lord who took me from herding the flock, and the Lord who said: ‘Go, prophesy to my people, Israel.’”                                                   Amos 7: 12-15

Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two, giving them authority over unclean spirits. He instructed them to take nothing for their journey but a walking stick  –  no bread, no haversack, no coppers for their purses…So they set off to preach repentance; and they cast out many devils and anointed many sick people with oil, curing them.               Mark 6: 7-11

Today’s first reading comes from Amos, an 8th Century BC prophet who was one in a long line of prophets to Israel. Taking on the role of prophet was a tall order for those who were persuaded to do it because it meant challenging people who had slipped away from worshipping God and fallen into feathering their own nests at the expense of poor people whom they robbed and exploited. Inevitably, prophets found themselves having to shake the cages of leaders who had turned a blind eye to the injustices going on around them and even joined in at making themselves rich and comfortable by robbing the poor and vulnerable themselves. Almost all of the prophets let it be known that they took on their role reluctantly either because they could not resist God’s invitation or because they were given no formal preparation for the tasks they were expected to undertake. Isaiah protested that he had no aptitude for public speaking; Habakkuk began his work by criticising God, who had engaged him ,for not taking action against the injustices being dealt out to ordinary, defenceless people. Jeremiah reprimanded God for holding back and allowing the wicked to prosper. He proceeded to blame God for seducing him into becoming a prophet in the first place. Jonah, frightened by the enormity of what he was asked to do, launched into an angry outburst at God for allowing a plant to grow up over night and wither away to nothing in the space of twenty-four hours. Amos himself stated that he had no qualifications for taking on what was required of him. After all, he had only been occupied cutting holes in the bark of sycamore trees in order to scrape out the worms that were destroying them. Unwittingly, he was using a pretty good metaphor for his role of challenging people to rid themselves of the corrupt practices that were making them rich as they preyed on the poor. After the style of many of the prophets, Amos was not always politically correct in his choice of words. In an earlier outburst, he had compared wealthy women to spoilt cows: “Listen to this word, you cows of Bashan living in the mountain of Samaria, oppressing the needy, crushing the poor, saying to your husbands: ‘Bring us something to drink!’ The Lord God swears this by his holiness: ‘The days are coming to you now when you will be dragged out with hooks, the very last of you with prongs.’”  (Amos 4: 1)

We might well agree that the rant from Amos in today’s first reading is as relevant to the citizens of today’s world as it was to the people of Israel more than twenty-eight centuries ago!

There were similarities between the Prophets and the Twelve who were called by Jesus and sent on mission to call people to repentance or, more accurately, metanoia (a change of mind and heart) that opened them to see that the vision contained in the kingdom of God inspired them to see that life could be lived differently from the way they saw people living in the world around them. That difference was signalled in the cures they effected in the lame and sick they encountered, and in the freedom they brought to the lives of those from whom they expelled evil spirits. Amos and his brother prophets, by allowing themselves to be captivated by God, were able to imagine a world in which all could live in justice and contentment. They had to leave behind their former lives, their grievances and complaints, and imagine that justice for all was possible. Both the Twelve and the Prophets all went forth into a world that was at best indifferent, with nothing more than the clothes they stood up in, hope in their hearts and fire in their bellies. More importantly they had allowed themselves to be open to change, to the possibility of becoming more than they ever imagined they could be. If the twelve had one advantage it was that they each had a like-minded companion to support and encourage them. Moreover, they had all been inspired by a Jesus, whose creativity and dream for a world where all could live in freedom, peace and justice was something worth spending a life on bringing to reality.

Why, we might ask, did Mark make no mention of Jesus taking time to give the Twelve lessons in how to go about teaching and preaching? I can only conclude that, when we are equipped with nothing but ourselves, we can give only from our acquired experience and from what we have stored in our hearts. What might the twelve have absorbed from being in the company of Jesus and witnessing the way in which he had reached out in compassion to people in desperate need? The twelve who went on their mission in pairs had the benefit of the same shared experience, of friendship with Jesus and the assurance of support and encouragement from one another. They were also grounded in the knowledge that even the one who had inspired them had experienced rejection from those of his home town from whom he might have expected better.

The object lesson that Jesus gave the Twelve by sending them out to proclaim the good news of the kingdom  –  the very essence of his mission  –  was that the message of God’s love and promise of living in freedom, compassion, equality and respect for all is caught not taught. The good news that Jesus had proclaimed by the way in which he lived is contagious whenever it is lived. The people we encounter, who have not heard the good news Jesus handed on to us, will be inspired and captivated by it only when we modern-day successors to the Twelve live it authentically. When we do that, others will stand a chance of catching it from us.

The Prophets who were captivated and commissioned by God to rouse Israel from its sleep, comfort and mediocrity were effective when those to whom they reached out caught something of the passion and fire in the belly that emanated from them.

Today’s readings invite us to take the risk of opening ourselves more widely to the contagion of Jesus and his good news of the kingdom of God. We will spread that contagion only by engaging authentically with everyone we encounter.