by Father Mike Stubbs
Imagine what difference it would make in your life if you could predict the future.
You could arrange to buy the winning ticket for the lottery. You could snatch up stock shares that were going to increase in value. You could foresee disasters and avoid them.
Unfortunately, it is not that easy to tell the future. Fortunetellers will sometimes read the tea leaves in a cup, or peer into a crystal ball, or look at the lines in a customer’s hand to make a prediction. A less superstitious and more scientific method would have us look at recent history and hope that the trend will continue. But that is no guarantee. It may only be a fluke.
In the ancient world, people had various ways through which they would try to tell the future. Sometimes they would sacrifice an animal and examine its liver for signs of what was yet to come. The flight of birds could provide an omen.
In contrast to that, the people of Israel at the time of the Old Testament believed that God would speak to them through selected individuals, the prophets. Often their message involved the future, as well as the present. If the people continued to sin, God would eventually punish them. If the people repented and followed the will of God, then God would reward them.
What distinguished the prophets of the Old Testament from fortunetellers is not only this connection of their message to the present as well as to the future, but also the manner in which the prophets would receive the message from God. Instead of discerning signs in the natural world, the prophets would somehow hear the voice of God speaking to them.
Sunday’s first reading, Dt 18:15-20, mentions how the people of Israel complained when God spoke directly to them: “Let us not again hear the voice of the Lord, our God, nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.” This refers to the time when they assembled at Mount Horeb, also called Mount Sinai. Moses climbs up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments.
The people are afraid to hear God speaking to them directly, but God is determined to get the message across. That is why God promises to send them a prophet. One way or another, God will speak to them: “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen.”
The time of the prophets may appear to have passed. Even at the time of Jesus, prophecy seemed to have disappeared. That is why John the Baptist stands out so dramatically, apparently filled with the spirit of Elijah the prophet.
But God still speaks to us, through the words of Scripture, in the events of our lives, above all through the incarnate word, Jesus Christ, and through his body, the church. Just as God assured the people of Israel in the reading from Deuteronomy that God would speak to them through the prophets, even now God speaks to us still.