Many prominent people and institutions have a spokesperson — that is, someone who speaks on their behalf. An ancient word for that is “prophet.” It’s rooted in two Greek words: pro, meaning “before” or “for” and phanai, meaning “to speak.”
When God told Moses, “Repeat to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, all that I tell you,” Moses protested, “Since I am a poor speaker, how can it be that Pharaoh will listen to me?” The Lord told him, “Aaron your brother shall act as your prophet.”
Moses has gone down in history as the first great prophet of God, and God promised him, “I will raise up for [the Israelites] a prophet like you from among their kinsmen.” This hope never died. Over a millennium later Jewish priests and Levites, seeking to know who Jesus was, asked him, “Are you the Prophet?”
The Jewish scriptures are filled with references to prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are well known; less familiar are others like Deborah, Micah, Habakkuk and Malachi. Hundreds of other prophets, both Israelite and pagan, are unnamed.
Few prophets are named in the Christian scriptures. Jesus called John the Baptist a prophet and “more than a prophet.” Jesus is hailed as a prophet and “the Prophet.”
Muslims are more wont to call Jesus a prophet than Christians. Muslims venerate biblical figures from Abraham to Jesus as prophets, but for them the greatest of the prophets is Muhammad.
For all believers in the one God, a prophet is one who speaks the word of God. No one can assume the office. Only God can appoint his spokesperson and inspire someone to speak on his behalf.
In a sense, all holy men and women are prophets, for “actions speak louder than words.” Their lives communicate God and his will and love to those who know them.
God can speak to and through us. “In him we live and move and have our being”; God is totally operative in the life of each of us. The more conscious we are of our existence as creatures and of the love of the Creator, the more likely it is that we will hear God speak and we will speak on his behalf.
The Spirit breathes where he wills. The life-giving Spirit of the one God may speak through the life of anyone — Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, animist, agnostic or atheist — if only each chooses to speak as the Spirit prompts.
Though there are special prophetic persons and institutions, in a sense everyone may become a prophet, speaking by word or example on behalf of God.
In the face of the violence, injustice, discrimination, exploitation and other evils of modern societies, thanks be to God there are innumerable voices raised for right. In spite of false propaganda, distorted values, and appeals to egoism and selfishness, there are courageous men and women everywhere, of every faith and nation, whose lives speak truth, justice and love — who speak on behalf of God.
The Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible, describes a society filled with prophets and prophetic voices — a society constantly being challenged to conform to the plan of the Lord. As with the Jews of the time of Jesus, today’s devout believers may be yearning for prophets.
Open your eyes and ears. The Spirit is alive and well. Prophets surround you. You’re being called and challenged to be a prophet, too.
Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern