Luke 11:47-54, Thursday of Week 28 in Ordinary Time
Bernice Fitz-Gibbon was an American advertiser in the sixties. She is honored in her field as one of the most influential women of the twentieth century. I was reading an old copy of Reader’s Digest and I came across a quotation from her. “A good ad,” she says, “must be like a good sermon: it must not only comfort the afflicted, it must also afflict the comfortable.”
Isaiah, Joel, Amos, Micah, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah all died of slaying. Their assassins were kings or their sons, or soldiers, or a lynch mob — all seeking to silence them for ever. Many prophets ended up bloody and dead because, to use Fitz-Gibbon’s phrase, they afflicted the comfortable. And the comfortable turned murderous. The same misfortune felled Jesus of Nazareth. Unlike prophets of old, though, we don’t quite see Jesus walking up to immoral monarchs to invoke God’s fury on them. What began unsettling authorities was Jesus comforting the afflicted, and how he did so — that is, constantly, ardently, unflinchingly. . . to the point of flouting the sacred code. There were laws that governed human touching, for example. Jesus defied them. Laws regulated speaking with women in public, especially loose women. Jesus flouted them. Laws warned against bodily fluids like saliva, tears, blood. He couldn’t be bothered. Plus his unsettling message about a Kingdom that favored peasants more than monarchs, a Kingdom that praised good Samaritans more than lawful Pharisees, a Kingdom that commiserated more with sinful women than with self-righteous men, and admitted “gluttons” and “drunkards,” not just fasters and abstainers. They couldn’t stand anymore the sight of him, the sound of him. So they sought to bind and gag Jesus for ever; even if, for the most part, he was simply comforting the afflicted.
When we think “prophet,” these days, doesn’t it evoke images of firebrands on the street, freedom-fighters with sharp words, whistle-blowers in righteous anger? They put their reputations on the line, their lives on the chopping board. We know prophets like that. We need prophets like that. But, alas, prophetic exhortation is a charism not all of us have, no matter how much we wish we did.
But, sisters and brothers, prophetic exhortation is only one “side” of prophecy. There’s another side: prophetic comforting. Being prophetic also calls for the capacity to soothe, to calm. Prophecy is also the work of consoling — like Amos solaced the poor, like Elijah gladdened the widow, like Isaiah consoled the exiles, like Jesus. Now that we can do, can’t we? I don’t think we need a special kind of wiring to be able to comfort. It’s something all of us can do. It’s something all of us need . . . for we are all afflicted in some kind of way.
If Jesus completely reveals to us what God is like, then we must stay awake to the reality that God isn’t just an exhortative God. He is also, and, I dare say, more so, a comforting God. Sure, God knows we need to be taught very important lessons. But he also knows that the reason we find it so difficult learning his lessons is because we need to be comforted first before we can be taught. And comfort us, God does, because he knows we don’t always find comfort especially in how being good people can be such a struggle. You give so much but receive very little back. You forgive, yet you don’t get forgiven. You try to stay moral — killjoy ka. Magpapautang ka, hindi ka babayaran. Magmamahal ka. . . seenzoned ka lang. We all need prophetic comforting, and God knows that. Fortunately, we can all do our share in comforting, too, even if it’s not us to be prophetically exhortative.
I’m very happy to tell you something you already know but sometimes forget: that Jesus is a comforter of our afflictions more than a scolder for our sins.