The disciples asked Jesus, ‘Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ He replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
The Jewish scriptures (our Old Testament) has many accounts of the ancient prophets. A simple definition of a prophet could well be: someone chosen by God to speak for God. The job of the prophet, no matter how challenging the times and the circumstances, was to accurately pass on God’s message to humanity. There was no specific training for this role, and there were no qualifications needed, other than being chosen by God.
As Jews looked back into their own history, they saw the prophets as being important signposts for God’s will and for the future God planned for this world. Unfortunately, as in their own time, the message of the prophets became distorted. Those chosen by God to speak for God conveyed a difficult message. What they gave as the ‘word of God’ was seen as challenging comfortable and profitable lifestyles. Their message was seen as having potential for overturning the status quo. The message of the prophets demanded ‘change’, which everyone knows as being such a difficult concept.
In today’s short reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is being questioned about the role of the prophets in those later times. Jewish teaching and tradition dictated that the great prophet Elijah would return to restore the equilibrium of a good relationship between God and humanity. Jesus gave his disciples the shocking news that the second coming of Elijah had already taken place, and that nobody had noticed it happening.
When Elijah’s earthly life came to its end, we read of a chariot of fire and horses … and Elijah [ascending] in a whirlwind into heaven (2 Kings 2:11). After such a dramatic exit they expected more than the frugal and penitential John the Baptist as Elijah’s return. They expected and wanted great heavenly fanfares and angels and chariots of fire, and absolutely everything heaven could throw at them. What they got was a man who spent much of his time in the wilderness and who called on everyone to turn from their old ways. Similarly, they expected the Messiah foretold by the ancient prophets to come in the form of a great warrior king. They were not ready for the loving and serving Messiah we see in Jesus.
Our message for today is about the prophetic nature of our calling. Jesus called us ‘friends’. The intimacy of that relationship makes it clear that we are all called into a prophetic ministry. We are all chosen by God to speak for God. The big question for all of us is how we will, in our time, account for our response to that call to the God who chose us? Or will we have to give an account of why we were in the crowd shouting: Crucify him!