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Opening the Word: Prophetic discipleship

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Jesus’ prophetic career seems to get off to a rocky start. Standing up in the synagogue in Nazareth, he proclaims that God’s reign, the final and definitive moment of divine judgment, is at hand.

It is fulfilled in his very person, the presence of “the daybreak from on high” (Lk 1:78).

But those gathered in Nazareth, who knew Jesus as a child, can’t accept his claim: “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” (Lk 4:22).

At first glance, this doubt seems natural. How many of us could imagine that the child next door growing up, the one who once played in our front yard, is the Son of Man who has come to judge the nations?

But Jesus’ words in Nazareth reveal that something more is at stake in his rejection than that of familiarity. To be a prophet is to be rejected. It is to be rejected by those who should be most attuned to the prophetic exhortations.

When this rejection comes, the prophet doesn’t mope. The prophet brings salvation to the nations. When rejected, Elijah was sent to the Gentile widow of Zarephath. When rejected, Elisha healed the Gentile Naaman of Syria.

In this sense, Jesus’ prophetic career begins swimmingly. He is rejected not just by the sons of Israel but also by his very neighbors. He then announces that the kingdom of God, the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes, will be offered to every nation.

And this announcement, this prophetic claim, is met with violence: “They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill … to hurl him down headlong” (Lk 4:29).

Today in the Church, there is much talk about discipleship. The disciple is meant to be a person who goes out on mission, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world. Having encountered the dayspring from on high, Jesus Christ, they bring this light to the nations.

We should be honest that such discipleship comes with a cost. If we follow Jesus Christ, then we’ll discover that discipleship has a prophetic dimension. And when you’re a prophet, you should expect rejection. You should expect violence.

Violence will come when Christians proclaim that every human person is created in the image and likeness of God, worthy of dignity.

Violence will come when Christians preach that true flourishing is not found on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley but in love unto the end.

It will come when Christians challenge politicians to recognize that their power is ordered to a higher end than winning elections and gaining power no matter the cost.

It will come when Christians speak up against a mob mentality that bypasses forgiveness for a ritual sacrifice of the accused.

There will be violence if we preach, proclaim and live the kingdom of God.

Of course, the prophet doesn’t preach hard truths out of a desire to inflict violence upon oneself. Instead, it is love that inspires the preaching of the prophet. The love of God has inflamed the heart of the prophet so that he or she must speak the difficult truth.

Discipleship is prophetic. But, it is not obnoxious for its own sake.

In a world and sometimes a Church grown addicted to power and prestige, the patience, the kindness and the truth of divine love will be rejected.

And still, that divine love spurs us on: “I will sing of your salvation” (Ps 71:15).

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.

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