Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Rebellion of False Prophets

When the priest Zephaniah read this letter to Jeremiah the prophet, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: Send to all the exiles: Thus says the LORD concerning Shemaiah, the Nehelamite: Because Shemaiah prophesies to you, although I did not send him, and has led you to rely on a lie, therefore thus says the LORD, I will punish Shemaiah, the Nehelamite, and his descendants. None of them shall dwell among this people to see the good I will do for this people—oracle of the LORD—because he preached rebellion against the LORD. (Jeremiah 29:29-32)

As I continue working through the Book of Jeremiah, I’m struck by the emergence of the false prophets who either say what they think and attribute it to God, or say what they think others want to hear. Both are treated as leading people in a lie and as preaching rebellion against God who had something different in mind for the people of Israel as they faced exile in Babylon.

The concept of preaching rebellion struck me as something relevant for our times. Back then, God sent certain prophets who spoke His message to the people while false prophets tried to undermine his message. In this time, we have the Church which was established by Christ to preach and to teach while people who do not agree with what the Church is doing argue that it has gone astray, and God wills something different.

It seems to me that both are examples of the false prophets. In both cases we have those who were given authority by God to teach in His name and people who do not like what is taught and try to undermine it. I suspect that both cases are not so much about deliberate malice as it is not believing the authority of the ones God has sent. The false prophets might sincerely think they understand the situation better. But it is rebellion against God nonetheless because the prophet or the Church which they oppose is teaching with God’s authority.

Things are as bad as they have always been. In 1974, writing about the hostility towards the pontificate of St. Paul VI, Hans Urs Von Balthasar could write about a rebellion that fits the same problems today, 46 years after it was originally written:

To use, for once, the nonsensical division of humanity into a “left” and a “right”, we can say that the “left” is closed to the monarchic, aristocratic, bureaucratic and any other “cratic” claims of the central “apparatus”, while the “right” is split: there is a small segment in which “papolatry” still prevails, but the majority is plagued by a growing fear that the Pope might be captured by the “progressives”, if he himself is not a “leftist” who, at the expense of the “silent Church”, spins questionable diplomatic threads to Moscow and Peking. [Paul VI is meant. The original text was published in 1974—Ed.]

Of course, there is—and always has been among Catholics—a healthy popular sentiment that is faithful to Rome without being blind to the faults and human failings of the curia and even of the pope. Ordinary common sense is able to handle this as a matter of course and without embarrassment. But this sentiment (sound, from the Catholic point of view) is steadily undermined by the mass media, the press and the numerous publications that demonstrate their Christian “adulthood” by an arrogant and even venomous superiority toward all that comes from Rome, happens in Rome or goes to Rome.

—Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church, trans. Andrée Emery, Second Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 25–26. Bracketed editor notes from the original text.

These parallels between the false prophets in the time of Jeremiah and the critics of the Church today should lead us to consider whether our tendency to downplay the Church when she teaches what we do not want to hear—claiming that her teaching is false—might be seen by God in the same way that he saw Shemaiah, the Nehelamite… as being in rebellion against Him and leading people into a lie. We as Catholics believe that Jesus left us with the Church which teaches with His authority. So, if we follow a false prophet who teaches that this Church is in error, we are following the rebel against God and are without excuse.

We are constantly told that the Church is promoting all sorts of errors. But when we look at what the Church teaches, we see that the false prophets making these accusations are confusing their political and cultural preferences with God’s will. The result is they lead rebellion against God by saying that the Church is being hijacked by “the left” or “the right,” when in fact it is their preferences that are trying to hijack the Church.

 

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(†) The original title of this work translates as “The Anti-Roman Attitude.”

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