31 Jan 2021

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 31 January 2021

Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Star Amphitheatre at Balmoral, and David Koresh

In 1925 the Star of the East sect of Theosophists built a 200-seat amphitheatre here in Sydney. Krishnamurti, their ‘World Teacher’, was expected to preach there. He was said to have prophesied Christ’s imminent return, walking on water through the heads of Sydney harbour, and so the theatre was built at Balmoral Beach. Some booked seats and waited patiently. But the prophecy was false, the prophet renounced his title, and the theatre was eventually demolished to make way for a block of flats.

More harmful have been prophets like David Koresh of the Branch Davidian sect who, like Krishnamurti, recruited in Australia as well as America and Europe. Koresh claimed that as God’s prophet he could annul his followers’ marriages and take the women and girls for himself. In 1993 he led 79 men, women and children to their deaths, after a 51-day standoff with the feds in Waco, Texas.

When we talk of ‘false’ prophets, we imagine cunning charlatans, scheming to defraud the gullible, or more sinister madmen, who brainwash and abuse their followers. By false prophets, then, we mean ones who are bad or mad or both. But when Moses talks of prophecy today (Dt 18:15-20), he does not distinguish the genuine prophet from the counterfeit or warn against false ones. No, Moses discusses real prophets, raised up by God, given His words to speak, and deserving of our attention. The question is: whose agenda do they serve, God’s or their own? Some, he notes, are hypocrites: they speak God’s words but do not heed them. Others present their own ideas as if they were God’s. And still others end up speaking for another god altogether

Which could make us rather cynical about prophets and prophecy… But while Moses warns us against voices that speak false, he makes his own prophecy. One day a new prophet will emerge from our own ranks. In Him the word of God will come, not out of the air, fire or cloud but in person. This new Moses will reliably transmit all God wants us to know and do.

In today’s Gospel Jesus’ takes his place in the seat of Moses in the synagogue for the first time (Mk 1:21-8; cf. Mt 23:2). “His teaching,” Mark says, “made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, He taught with authority” – as much or more than Moses himself. But the parallels between Jesus and Moses were striking, even before Jesus’ first day ‘at work’. As infants both were saved from kings who sought to kill all the baby boys (Ex 1:22–2:10; Mt 2:13-18). When the young Moses’ life was in danger, he fled from Egypt to Israel, only returning to Egypt years later (Ex 2:15; 7:6-7); Jesus took the reverse itinerary, from Israel to safety in Egypt and back (Mt 2:13-21). Before beginning His public ministry Jesus fasted for forty days and nights, as Moses had done (Ex 34:28; Dt 9:9,18; Mt 4:2).

Guido Reni, Moses with the Tables of the Law (1624), Borghese Gallery. Cosimo Rosselli, The Sermon on the Mount (1481-2), Sistine Chapel

: Then, as Moses ascended a mountain to receive the Old Law, Jesus gave the New Law in His ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Ex 24:12-18; Mt 4:2; 5:1).

So, too, we recall Moses on another hill during the battle with the Amalekites, with Aaron and Hur helping hold up his arms, just as Jesus went up another mountain and was attended by Moses and Elijah (Ex ch. 17; Mk 9:4-5). With them He discussed the Passover or εξοδον (exodus) He would accomplish, not through the Red Sea but through death in Jerusalem (Lk 9:31). It would mean liberation for the New Israel as the first Passover and Exodus was for the Old.

John Everett Millais, Victory O Lord! (1871), Manchester Art Gallery  –  Detail from Raphael, The Transfiguration (1520), Vatican Art Gallery

: There He was transfigured, so that His face shone like the sun and his disciples trembled, as people did when Moses came down from Sinai with his face radiating light (Ex 34:29-35; Mt 17:2,6). And on both occasions the voice of God was heard from a cloud (Ex 24:15; Mk 9:7).

So Moses, the greatest prophet of the Hebrew Bible (Dt 34:10), prefigured Jesus. But there the comparisons end: for as St John Chrysostom observed, where “Moses governed only as a servant, Christ governed as Son; where Moses took charge of another’s domain, Christ took charge of His own.”[1] Only Christ perfectly spoke the word of God, for only He was the Word made flesh! (Jn 1:14)

“Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that the Lord put His spirit on them all,” Moses said (Num 11:29; cf. 1Cor 14:1). Well, eventually the Lord did just that (Acts ch. 2). He conferred a prophetic office upon His followers. “The holy people of God,” said the Second Vatican Council, “shares in Christ’s prophetic office; they spread abroad a living witness to Him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity… so that the power of the Gospel might shine forth in daily social and family life” (Lumen Gentium 12, 31, 35). The prophetic vocation is given, then, through the Red Sea of Baptism, through the Pentecost of Confirmation or Holy Orders, but also in the sacrament of family life, Matrimony (LG 35.3).

So we are all prophets in Christ, called to speak His words of life and love. It is a great privilege – and a great responsibility.

Which brings us back to Moses’ message this morning (Dt 18:15-20). We like to divide the world into cowboys and Indians, true prophets and false. But if truth is black and white, people are not, except in the most superficial sense. False prophecies come, not only from those hell-bent on evil, but also from good people who lose their way. People who readily recognise other people’s faults but never turn the spotlight on themselves (cf. Mt 7:1-5,15). People who fail to practice what they preach (cf. Mt 23:1-5). People so full of their own opinions these eclipse God’s word (cf. Mk 7:13; Lk 8:11-15; 11:28,45-54). People who worship the three P-gods of possessions, power and pleasure, or the gentler, more subversive demigods of comfort, credit and congeniality. In other words, people like us.

Both true and false prophecy can come from each of us. Indeed, the possessed man Jesus cures today is no outsider, no heathen; he is inside the synagogue, one of us (Mk 1:21-8). Prophets though we Christians are, we too can stumble and fall. We too can be possessed or obsessed. We too need those authoritative healing words of Jesus: Shalom! Be quiet now! I cast all evil from you. Now be My prophet, a voice for Me in your world.

[1] St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Hebrews 5.

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Solemn Pontifical Mass of the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Despite the very low rates of COVID transmission in our region, the 4m2 rule continues to be imposed on places of worship so that most churches can have fewer that 100 in attendance and many Catholics continue to be denied the opportunity to attend Mass. Happily this cathedral and some larger churches will now be permitted to have several hundred more in attendance. As we hope for further easing of restrictions we continue to pray that 2021 will be a healthy and secure year for all, and we pray especially for those countries, such as Britain, that are faring worst. To all those still joining us by live-streaming, and the lucky ones who are present, a very warm welcome!