Thomas Reese on How Prophets Are Social Critics Not Fortunetellers

A fresco of the Prophet Isaiah by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, from between 1726 and 1729, in the Patriarchal Palace in Udine, Italy. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


One of the challenges of preachers in Catholic churches and many Protestant churches is that they must preach each Sunday on the Scripture readings in the Common Lectionary rather than simply use their favorite passages of the Bible. This protects congregations from hearing the same homilies over and over again. It also keeps preachers honest by confronting them with a full spectrum of Scripture readings.

I had to wonder what conservative preachers did with last Sunday’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah. In the comment section below or on Twitter (@ThomasReeseSJ), let me know what you heard last Sunday.

Many people think of prophets as fortunetellers who predict the future. In reality, they are much more like social critics or op-ed writers. They challenge political and religious leaders and their people to do what God wants them to do. They frequently attack political and economic elites for not taking care of the poor. They even criticize foreign entanglements and wars. And they frequently do it with harsh words.

Isaiah spoke in this tradition. In last Sunday’s reading (the Book of Isaiah’s 58th chapter, verses 7-10), he has the Lord telling the people and their leaders, “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked … .”

Despite this exhortation, 11% (14.3 million) of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2018. Six million children lived in households that were food insecure.

We were also less welcoming to the “oppressed.” The U.S. plans to admit only 18,000 refugees during fiscal year 2020, the lowest number since 1980, when Congress enacted the program. Meanwhile, there are an estimated 70.8 million refugees in the world, and the number keeps increasing.

Nor is the homeless situation any better. More than 550,000 Americans experience homelessness on a typical night, and 1.4 million will spend some time in a shelter in a given year. The situation around the world is even worse.

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Source: Religion News Service