SUMWALT: A prophet's reward

SUMWALT: A prophet's reward

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Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”

What is a prophet’s reward? And would you want one if you could get it?

Jesus was fully aware of what had happened to his prophet cousin, John the Baptist, who was doing very well out in the wilderness, drawing huge crowds with his camel’s hair and locusts routine. Everybody loved him when he was breathing fire about the wrath to come and berating the Pharisees for their many hypocrisies. Then he went and lost his head when he dared to tell King Herod that he was in an adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife. Prophets who want to keep their heads are well advised not to be too specific when they talk about the evil deeds of people who have power over them.

My friend Patricia Marchant has been interviewed several times by newspaper, radio, and television reporters during the clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic church. She is a family therapist, a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and an activist in survivors groups. Speaking to the authorities in her church who have the audacity to speak of these unspeakable evils in measured, reassuring, pastoral tones, she said, “Where is the outrage? Where is the outrage?” Will Patricia get a prophet’s reward?

If you have ever raised an ethical question in your office when everyone else was willing to close an eye to a business deal that was less than honest, you know why Jesus was trying to prepare his disciples for the worst. Whistleblowers are not welcome, and certainly not rewarded, in most organizations, even in the church. Perhaps, we should even say especially in the church. There is often little or no thanks for doing what is right and just and good. Most of the Erin Brockovichs of this world are never going to have Julia Roberts portray them in a feature-length movie.

First of all, you can expect that someone will raise questions about your legitimacy. By whose authority are you doing this? What right do you have to come in here and say these things? Who do you think you are?

If you think living a prophetic lifestyle might make a saving difference in the world, you may be right, but you may not live to see it. Although Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton devoted 50 years to the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, neither lived to see women gain the right to vote. A good many of our great-great grandmothers who marched with them didn’t live to see the ultimate passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.

Thomas Merton wrote about this in a letter to James Forest in 1966: “Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truths of the work itself.” In this way, Merton says, “you can be more open to the power that will work through you without you knowing it.”

This is a prophet’s reward.

John Sumwalt is a retired pastor and the author of “Shining Moments: Visions of the Holy in Ordinary Lives”

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