Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Every so often, a story you have heard countless times can affect you in a new and profound way. In my case today, the story in question is that of Elijah, the prophet who operated during the infamous reign of Ahab and Jezebel. At the end of his life, Elijah extends an invitation to his anointed successor Elisha. He parts the waters of the Jordan for them, and after they cross he says, “Request whatever I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha then made an awesome demand of his master. In the world of their time, the firstborn son received a double portion of the inheritance from his father. Elisha, however, had left his father’s house when receiving the summons from Elijah. Now out of love Elisha asks: “May I receive a double portion of your spirit.” He hails the old prophet not just as his master but as his father. Elijah’s initial response, though written down some 2500 to 2800 years ago, could not but come alive for me as I read it, a response tinged with father’s love, and with it a father’s fear: “You have asked something that is not easy.”
Elijah certainly knew whereof he spoke. He himself at one point had found himself hunted down by the queen and fleeing the country, eventually arriving at the very mountain of God itself at Sinai. When there he encounters the “silent sound,” the whisper that is the mysterious presence of God, Who asks what he is doing at the mountain. Elijah recounts his trials to God, and his despair is palpable: “I have been most zealous for YHWH the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant. They have destroyed your altars and murdered your prophets by the sword. I alone remain, and they seek to take my life.” God does promise him some assistance, though it will take several years to be fully realized, but the very first command God gives to the last of his prophets, whose own life is now danger, is as striking as it is unambiguous: “Go back!” The full weight of Elijah’s spiritual burden is both taken off his shoulders and thrown into his arms; he can either face death by proclaiming the word of YHWH to an adulterous Israel, or he can abandon his office by disobeying YHWH and remaining on the mountain. But only with the second option is death sure: if the last prophet abandons his office, none will remain to bring God’s word to His people The prophetic office – perhaps even the covenant, even Israel itself – will die. If he goes back he will have help, he will find a successor, and in time the people’s faith will grow. But none of it happens unless the last prophet goes back to face death.
One of the responsibilities of being “a kingdom and priests for our God” is that of prophecy. Now in the Judeo-Christian understanding of the word–which is, incidentally, the original understanding of the word–prophecy is not fortunetelling or predicting the future or enacting elaborate and sometimes disgusting rituals and practices in order to discern the will of God. These actions are actually forbidden by God, and in light of His revelation are unnecessary to boot. Prophecy is, literally, the act of “speaking on behalf” (prophanein) of God, communicating what God has chosen to reveal as His will and command. A number of people over the last 2000 years have enjoyed a more direct intimacy with God in this regard, such as Francis of Assisi, Margaret Mary Alacoque, and Sister Mary Kowalska. But all of us who believe have the opportunity and the responsibility to be prophets, because God has made His will, His Good News known to His Church and commissioned it to preach that Good News to the whole world. We are to be His prophets before all the world, and in that He has asked of us something that is not easy.
That commission applies whether it is convenient or not, whether people want to hear it or not, whether people agree with it or not. There was no qualifier or conditional when Jesus said, “Go and teach all nations,” and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I find it fitting, therefore, and reassuring too that alongside the Old Testament story of Elijah in the daily readings is the New Testament story of the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the wonderful promises of the Beatitudes. The Messiah puts forth His Law to us, which He will send His disciples out to proclaim just as YHWH sent Elijah back from Sinai to prophesy to Israel and turn them back to the Law. And He promises us aid as well: we will be blessed when we do these things; our reward in heaven will be great, even when it is not here; the Father will see our deeds and repay us according to them. But we must take the first step, and let our light shine before others, be the city set on a mountain that cannot be hid. Like the prophets of old – like Jesus Himself – in order to serve life, we must put ours on the line.
In the end Elijah trusted in God, recruiting his successor, anointing the future king, outlasting the evils of Ahab and Jezebel, and re-establishing a prophetic guild. And when his “son” asked him for a double portion of his spirit, although he loved with a father’s love and feared with a father’s fear, Elijah trusted in God one more time, saying to his disciple, “If you see me taken up from you, your wish will be granted; otherwise not.” A short while later, as Elisha watched his “father” disappear into a whirlwind in the presence of a chariot of fire leaving only his mantle behind, he must have felt a strange sort of desolation: left alone to do “something that is not easy,” but not bereft or abandoned. Even as he found himself saying “YHWH the God of Elijah – where is he now?” he knew that that spirit he sought – the spirit of the prophet, the spirit of YHWH – was now with him, as it was with Elijah in the silent sound, inspiring him in secret; and the Father who sees in secret would repay him. The last prophet then parted the waters of the Jordan, to go back.
May we let that same Spirit work within us and fill us with comfort and joy, especially when it is not easy. May we always remember that God has given us His Spirit and His Church so that we may not be bereft or abandoned. May our time spent in church give us the strength we need to leave its walls and go back into the world. For until He comes again, we are each of us the last prophet.