23rd Sunday After Pentecost
October 27, 2013
Some Protestant churches observe the last Sunday in October as Reformation Sunday.
Some churches observe the First Sunday in November, or the last Sunday in October if it falls close to November 1, as All Saints Sunday, Readings for All Saints Sunday can be used in place of the regular readings on this Sunday if so observed.
Commentary on the Texts
The time frame of this reading is not given, although much of the material in this section of the book of Jeremiah is usually attributed to the period of Jeremiah's ministry during the reign of Jehoiakim (see The Rise of Babylon and Exile, especially the reign of Jehoiakim). This simply suggests that after placing this reading in that broad historical context, a particular historical setting is not as important as its literary setting and dynamic within the context of the book.
There is both a wider and a more immediate context to consider for this reading. The wider context places this reading following a whole series of speeches and symbolic actions that pronounce judgment on Judah for failing to fulfill its obligations of covenant with God. Jeremiah had issued numerous appeals for the people to repent, to return to God, and turn from their worship of Ba'al and the gods of the land (chs. 3-4). But the people had steadfastly refused to change their behavior and attitudes, because they refused to see that anything was wrong (5:12-13, 8:4-7). Jeremiah had attacked their false sense of security that was grounded in a misunderstanding of the role of God in their midst (for example, 5:21-25). They had thought the mere presence of the Temple and the practice of religious rituals were enough to guarantee their safety and to secure their future (7:1-34). Jeremiah had tried in vain to get them to acknowledge that religion was not enough.
As the degree of their misunderstanding and the depth of their entrenched but distorted ways of thinking, and their sin, become more and more obvious to Jeremiah, he lapsed into profound grief as he realized that they were headed for horrible consequences and yet they would not turn away (6:26, 8:18-9:1). Finally, in the chapter preceding this reading, he had expressed the conclusion that not only had the people refused to repent, they could not repent. They had become so accustomed to doing evil that they could not do what was right, did not even know how to do the good (4:22). The ways of Ba'al worship and unfaithfulness to God had become so much part of who they were that they could not change (13:23; cf. 17:1). They had become immune to God while still thinking they were his people. And so the end was certain, not just because God had decreed it, but because that was the future they had created for themselves.
It is in this context of recalcitrance, of a stubbornness arising from a complacent refusal to understand, of the denial of the true word of God through Jeremiah because it did not fit into their own scheme of self interest, that this reading must be heard. The people had domesticated God to their own agenda and view of the world, and so could no longer hear any message that did not conform to what they thought it should say. They were like someone standing in the middle of railroad tracks convinced that the wailing of the oncoming train's warning horn is bringing them great blessing. That false belief prevents them from hearing the warning for what it is, and prevents them from moving.
The immediate context of the reading is a sequence of two complaints and two answers from God, with a short prose narrative concerning false prophets inserted between them. The first extends from 14:1-10 and the second from 14:17-15:4, with the short narrative dialog between the prophet and God in 14:11-16. This reading actually picks up only parts of the two different complaints and corresponding answers. While the complete text ranges beyond our reading, it is important to understand it within that context. To extract it from its context may risk hearing it in ways that the book itself will not allow it to be heard.
The first part of our reading, 14:7-10, is the conclusion of a complaint and petition offered to God by the people. The larger unit follows the structure of a lament psalm, and complains of a drought (see Patterns for Life, especially on Lament Psalms). The lament psalm was a specific liturgical structure for a prayer of petition in the face of crisis. Sometimes the crisis was connected to sins committed by the people, which is the form represented here (See Penitential Psalms). The heart of a Lament Psalm (between the introduction and doxology) is composed of four basic parts:
A) a complaint that presents a problem facing the worshipper
The complaint portion of the lament (A) precedes our reading (vv. 1-6). Those verses present a graphic description of a drought and the threat it poses. The drought likely represents the failure of Ba'al worship against which Jeremiah had been preaching (v. 22; cf. 3:1-5, 5:24-25). Ba'al worship involved the fertility of the land since Ba'al was a nature deity who brought rain. A drought would imply the failure of the worship of Ba'al to secure the welfare of the people, and would raise anxiety about proper performance of the rituals. The implication may well be that the people felt they did not need Yahweh for rain until Ba'al did not perform; then they would turn to Yahweh as a last resort (see Ba'al Worship in the Old Testament). They would then expect Yahweh to perform what Ba'al had failed to do. That thinking would have grave consequences.
The reading picks up the last three of these parts of the lament (BCD). While it is not specifically stated, this is the people's prayer of lament and petition. Even if Jeremiah can be seen as himself offering the prayer as some suggest (Clements), it is clearly intended to be seen as the perspective of the people since God's answer concerns the people (v. 10). On the surface, they say all the right things. They acknowledge that they have sinned against God, and express the traditional confession about God's role as deliverer and savior in times of trouble (cf. 3:4-5). There is also the question "why?" that is typical of laments (e.g., Psa 22:1).
However, there is a slightly different tone to the question here that begins to reveal the problem. The question is normally a way to express the emotion and pain of life experience that does not conform to expectations, or it can express the uncertainty of life, the dimension of not knowing how the future will track that brings anxiety and pain (for example, Psa. 10:1, 42:9, 44:24, etc.).
But there is a subtle implication here that God himself is somehow confused as to what he should be doing in this situation, that he is even incapable of acting (v. 8). There is an impatience here, even an impiety, than is thinly veiled in correct religious language. It is really a subtle accusation that God is not performing as he should be performing. They have a need, they have done the proper things, and now God should have already acted. While such accusations against God are not alien to the OT or to laments, in this circumstance it is more revealing than the people intend it to be. They are really expressing the same kinds of attitudes that Jeremiah had already identified in his Temple sermon in chapter seven (cf. 26:4-6).
So this prayer, that has all the trappings of a humble acknowledgment of God and plea for help in a crisis, ironically becomes little more than a demand that God perform. The conclusion to the petition carries with it an added note of irony. The people claim the title as God's people, those who are "called by your name" (v. 9b). Yet Jeremiah had already said that they do not know God (4:22): "For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding." While they plead for God not to forsake them, Jeremiah had already said that they "have forgotten me, days without number" (2:32; cf. 7:23-24).
And so the response to their prayer is devastating and brings all of the accepted practices of proper religion into question. Where the people would normally expect a gracious answer from God promising a better future, or at the very least an acknowledgment from the people that God would act in their behalf, Jeremiah responded with God's scathing rejection of their efforts at piety. They had not fooled God with pious actions or with flattering words. They had not really turned to God; they were still wandering after the gods of the land. There may be a subtle reference to the sexual excesses of the fertility rites associated with Ba'al worship in the references to unrestrained feet (cf. Ruth 3:4-8, Prov 6:27-29).
In any case, God did not accept them, even though they had offered the proper prayer. This echoes the message of previous prophets. The external performance of religion is no guarantee of favor with God (for example, Amos 5:22-24, Isa 1:11-15; cf. Psa 51:16-17, Jer 6:20). This principle is one that seemed difficult for the Israelites to understand, yet was foundational in their coming to a proper relationship with God. It is this insistence on proper motives rather than external religion that prevented Israelite faith from becoming just another religion of magic that thought God could be controlled by human effort. They would soon find out just how free and undomesticated and uncontrolled by their carefully developed religious systems God really is.
There is a final irony in God's response in the use of the term remember (v. 10). This is a heavily laden theological term that often expresses the surety of God's grace, compassion, and deliverance in the world. In the traditions, when God remembers, wonderful things happen. In the midst of the flood, God remembered Noah and God's active presence in the world in the symbol of a wind began to dry up the threatening water (Gen 8:1). He then promised that he would remember the covenant with Noah and all humanity (Gen 9:15-16). As destruction was about to fall on Sodom, God remembered Abraham and the promises he had made to him, and for his sake brought Lot out of the city (Gen 19:29). When Rachael was barren God remembered her and Joseph was born (Gen 30:22). When the Israelites were suffering under the oppression of Pharaoh and cried out to God, he remembered his covenant with Abraham, and began their deliverance (Exod 2:24).
This is not a term that suggests that God is absent minded and has to be reminded of things that he has forgotten. It is a theological term that is a way to express the confession that God is faithful to his people, that he will lead and guide them, that he will fulfill His purposes for them in the world. And yet here, God remembered the sins and iniquity of the people. If God is the kind of God who remembers his promises and his covenants and acts in gracious ways, this suggests that the same would apply in a negative way when God remembered the people's sins. It is a confession that just as surely as God is gracious to his people, they are also accountable to him for their actions. If they have expected God to remember his covenant when they need help, then they should also expect him to remember his covenant when they have failed to live up to it.
This introduces a dimension of human accountability and divine freedom into the passage that is expanded in unexpected ways in the narrative section sandwiched between the two parts of our reading (vv. 11-16). We do not need to examine that section in detail, but two observations are important as the context for the remainder of the reading.
First, the emphasis on the people's accountability reveals a dimension of human freedom here that is staggering. God forbade Jeremiah to pray for the welfare of the people (v. 11). This was not an arbitrary action on God's part, but was his response to their habitual rejection of him and his instruction. The implication here is that the people had by their conduct committed themselves to a course of action that put all the promises at risk. They had assumed that the covenant, their relationship with God, was based on performing correct actions, much like the correct worship of Ba'al would guarantee rain. Yet, the message from God had consistently been that relationship with him was grounded on proper response to his grace in terms of righteousness and justice (e.g., Mic 6:8). By failing to respond faithfully, they have brought themselves and the nation to the point where they will not survive. Their own freedom to respond to God has led them to destroy their own future. Here is one of the most important commentaries in Scripture on the crucial relationship between freedom and responsibility.
Second, while God has told Jeremiah not to pray for the people because the issue had already been decided against them, Jeremiah still spoke to God on behalf of the people. He had already on more than one occasion in the book expressed his profound grief not only at the coming destruction but also at the insensibility of the people in not being able to realize it. And not only had he become convinced that the people could not change, here God has even said that there is no use to pray for them because the decision had already been made (vv. 11-12). And yet, Jeremiah attempted an explanation for the people's actions in pointing out that they have been deluded by false prophets (v. 13). This reveals not only a dimension of the intercessory role of the prophet as part of his mission, it also reveals an understanding of God that is willing to hold out hope that God might yet change his mind.
This explores a dimension of divine freedom from a different direction. God in his freedom can respond to the people in ways that they have not expected and that would go beyond the boundaries of their religious systems. On that very basis, Jeremiah could hold out hope that the same divine freedom could allow God to change his mind concerning the evil that he had now purposed for the people. Ideas of what God should be or how he should act do not bind God. Neither do absolute decrees or legal justice bind God. He may choose to relent, to change his mind, and create newness in the world that is wholly unexpected.
This dimension of God's freedom to respond to human situations is what allowed Abraham to call God to accountability for his destruction of Sodom (Gen 18:16-33), or Amos to intercede for Israel (Amos 7:1-9). It had allowed the Ninevites to avert destruction (Jon 3:10), and motivated the prayer of the Three Hebrews as they faced fiery execution (Dan 3:17-18). It is this freedom of God that becomes the only basis of hope.
The second part of the reading (vv. 19-22) sounds much like the first part, a complaint to God about circumstances followed by a petition for his intervention. But there are two crucial differences here. While the first complaint and petition had been spoken by the people (or in their name) and rejected by God, the first person pronoun of 15:1 establishes that this petition to God is from the prophet himself on behalf of the people. And while the people's complaint and petition had described a present drought, this second one envisions the coming destruction of the nation as a present reality. It evokes the images of horror and desolation that have not yet occurred, but are certainly coming.
The tone of this part of the reading, especially in the context of the previous messages from the prophet, is plaintive, even mournful. There is a stark realism here. As we already know, the problem that the people face is not lack of rain. There is something far worse about which they should be concerned. The prophet knows. While they are worried about rain for their crops, he knows that crops are the least of their worries. And yet that worry about rain, and who sends it, revealed the heart of the problem. Finally, the issue of rain was an issue about God. They had trusted the idols of Ba'al to bring rain, without understanding that God is the only source of life (v. 22). And so the two complaints actually related in ways that only the prophet understood. Their concern for the drought and their immediate circumstances mirrored Jeremiah's concern for the coming disaster and their future.
And so Jeremiah expressed the questions that the people themselves, even the prophets and priests, did not understand enough to express (v. 18). The questions that Jeremiah presented to God were the people's questions, the questions that they would ask if they had been sensitive enough to the things of God to know what was unfolding. Jeremiah already knew the answers to the questions. He knew that God had rejected Judah (v. 19a). He knew why there was no healing (v. 19b). The fault was not God's, but the people's choice to reject God and refuse to return.
These are not only questions about the present, but about the future, indeed whether there will be any future. Jeremiah had already proclaimed to the people that there is no future for them, but they have not believed him. And yet Jeremiah still speaks for them to God, and is able in the midst of his message of judgment to verbalize the possibility of an alternate future.
Jeremiah's complaint is not only an exercise in human honesty before God, but an expression of faith in God. It is not the kind of shallow faith that the people have expressed in their earlier petition. It does not chide God for inaction nor expect God to intervene and pronounce blessings. It simply voices the deepest of human care and concern to the only One who can truly hear such a cry of the heart. Sometimes simply the voicing of such a cry is itself an act of trust.
The people have not repented. Indeed, they have continually said that they had no need to repent (2:23, 34-35). Yes, they have said the words (v. 7), but they were not sincere. So what they would not do, or could not do, Jeremiah did for them, and offered a prayer of repentance as the ground of a new petition for God's grace (v.20). This is a bold move in light of the fact that God had just told him not to pray for the people (v. 11). God had told Jeremiah that he would no longer hear their cry. The implication in light of their earlier rejected petition was that their cries were too adulterated by self-interest to be genuine prayers of petition to God. But Jeremiah had stood in the counsel of God. While the people themselves were too far gone to be able to voice a meaningful prayer, Jeremiah was willing to voice it for them.
And then in perhaps the boldest move, Jeremiah asked God to remember the covenant, his relationship with these people. This is risky business, because God had already told Jeremiah that he would indeed remember, but that he would remember their sins. Here the prophet boldly juxtaposes one remembering with another. He was willing to call God to remember his commitment and relationship with these people at the same time God was remembering their sin.
After grounding his petition in a confession of sin, the only other basis of appeal is to God's reputation in the world, for the sake of his name. If these people are allowed to go into exile, the witness that they were supposed to bear of God's grace in the world would be damaged and God himself would be dishonored (cf. Ezek 20:44, Isa 48:9, 1 Sam 12:22, Psa 25:11).
There is a clear recognition here of the role of God's people in the world; they exist to bear witness of God. There is no other motive for appeal here except to God's own purposes in the world. It recognizes that God has chosen to reveal himself in the world through a redeemed people who then bear witness to him as their God. But at the same time this is risky simply because the people have failed at that task so miserably. It may serve God's purposes better to eliminate this people and go a different direction. Here is were the freedom of humanity and the freedom of God meet in an uncertainty that will not be bound by religious systems, creeds, correct performance, or historical circumstance. Finally, God's purposes will govern his response to human freedom.
And yet Jeremiah is willing to grasp at the hope that any future that exists will only be God's future. In returning to a final reference to rain (v. 22), Jeremiah acknowledged that all of life is God's, and there is no life apart from him. Finally, the prophet was willing simply to confess, knowing all that he knew about God's intentions, "we set our hope on you" (v. 22). He knew the worst. And yet he was willing to hold out some hope of a different future that went beyond his own message, and God's own expressed purpose. In any case, it is God's future.
This reading is a difficult one in some ways because at first glance it grates against our sensibilities. Even if we can even move beyond our own expectations to hear the reading for what it says, it does not sound quit like what we have come to understand about God. It seems to describe God in ways that contradict what we like to say about his work in the world and among his people, about his faithfulness in answering our prayers, and about his willingness to forgive. In some sense, we sound more like the Israelites than we would like to be.
Yet God rejected the apparent contrition and repentance of the people, the very repentance for which Jeremiah had been calling for so long. Why would God not act in ways that would be more consistent with the people's expectations and religious sensibilities developed from past dealings with God? And why would it appear that God's message to Jeremiah runs counter to the very core of Israelite religious ideas? It is in that very challenge of stable and expected religious ideas and proper religious sensibilities, and even the prophetic voices that promote them, that this reading has some of its greatest impact.
The placement of this reading within the book of Jeremiah helps it have this impact. But what is probably the most disturbing feature of this reading is the ironic use of prayer in which the meaning or effect of the prayer is the opposite of what might be expected. There are other places in the Old Testament where prayer is presented in such a manner (for example, Hos. 6:1-3; cf. Jer 3:3-5). But that does not relieve the shocking effect of calling into question what the people have come to expect about God, especially when that expectation sounds so much like what we ourselves have come to expect about God.
These observations open up two preaching paths for this reading, one related to the failure of the people and one related to the actions of the prophet. First, there is the interplay between human and divine freedom seen in the people's misunderstanding and thereby their rejection of God. It is a tension between the freedom granted us by God to respond to him in relationship and the ensuing responsibility that it creates, and the freedom God has to fulfill his purposes in the world by whatever means he chooses. Ultimately, this is a challenge to our ideas of what God requires of us in response to him, and why we exist in the world as his people.
This picks up two consistent Old Testament themes that track clearly into the New Testament. The persuasiveness of these themes suggests that they are not a matter of the culture of the biblical world, but are an essential aspect of what it means to be God's people on either side of the cross. The first of these themes is the dual dimension of righteousness and justice that are the essential expressions of response to God. While these are not dealt with directly in this reading, they lie in the background of everything that Jeremiah had said for both past and future (for example, 4:2, 9:23-24, 33:15; cf. Amos 5:24, Mic 6:8). Righteousness is what we owe to God as God ("love the Lord your God with all your heart, Deut 6:5) and justice is what we owe other people because we are God's people ("love your neighbor as your self," Lev 19:17-18).
Yet the tendency seen throughout the Old Testament, as well as into the New Testament and throughout church history, is to reduce that vital relationship with God expressed in righteousness and justice to religious systems, to correct belief or correct performance. It is an attempt to domesticate God to our own wants and needs in the world, to secure a stable world in which God is no threat to us and can always be expected to perform for us on demand. We tend to be uncomfortable with and threatened by a God who is truly free to be God apart from how we think he should act or what we think he should do for us.
Yet this reading, in a different way than some other biblical writings, calls us to come face to face with a God that will not be domesticated to an errand boy for our agendas. It is a call to reexamine what and how we think about God, a call to evaluate whether our creeds or doctrines or practices of worship, even our prayers, serve God and others or only serve ourselves.
Again from a different direction than we might be accustomed, it is a challenge to reexamine our covenant, our relationship with God, as communal bodies and as individuals. It challenges us to self examination to see if we truly understand the larger picture beyond our own cries for rain, our own attempts to get God to do what we think is the most pressing matter for us.
Indeed, it is a challenge to open our eyes and hearts to a larger vision of God's work in the world, and a larger vision of the consequences of our responses to God. Finally, it is a challenge to reflect on whether the very things that we think are the most religious and the most pleasing to God are actually an expression of a subtle idolatry in which we have learned to love the system and the trappings of religions more than we love the God to whom they are supposedly directed. And it is a call to be open to the work of God it the world, even if it is not bounded by what we think it should be or how we think he should act in the world.
The second of these themes is the sense of mission of God's people in the world. This is not the major issue in this reading, although it will become increasingly central during and after the exile. Still, with the plea for God to act for the sake of his name, there is the suggestion introduced here that just being God's people is not the end of the matter, as the people seemed to have assumed. All talk of being God's people, or of being the church triumphant, must be subsumed under the larger purpose of why God created a people in the first place. While this will be developed more clearly in the latter half of Isaiah, and come into full flower in the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Acts, the theme is woven throughout the Old Testament.
The Israelites existed to bear witness to God in the world; they existed for the sake of his name. As people looked at them, as they lived out the torah, people would see in Israel Israel's God. To fail to do torah is not just to fail to obey God in a legal matter; it is a failure to be what he had created them to be. This is at the heart of their responsibility to God in the world as his people. Obedience to torah and faithfulness to God are the necessary responses to his grace for the sake of that mission, not only for the sake of their own welfare (see Torah as Holiness: "Law" as Response to Divine Grace). At the very least, this calls us to evaluate whether our energies as God's people are directed at living torah for his name's sake or whether we are religious for our own name's sake. If taken seriously and answered honestly, it can be a disturbing probing of the motives behind our piety.
The second Preaching Path from this text proceeds from the prophet's interaction with God on behalf of the people. There is clearly an intercessory dimension to Jeremiah's dialog with God here that may suggest appropriate attitudes for God's people to take toward those who are apostate or sinners. We need to be careful that we do not simply use the biblical text to illustrate something we want to say apart from its own message. And we need to realize that all the particulars of Jeremiah's situation are not the same as ours.
Still, there is something in Jeremiahs' response to the death sentence pronounced by God, and the knowledge that his people will die that we find echoed later in Jesus' own attitude toward sinners. There is no glee at the coming consequences of sin here, even though some other biblical traditions come close to that for different reasons. Instead there is a deeply felt concern for the welfare of the people that arises from knowing what they do not yet know.
Jeremiah is willing to risk a radical trust in God, daring to verbalize to God a petition on their behalf even though God has already told him not to pray for the people. This is simply the expression of a profound trust in God that refuses to take any circumstance, even one that is purposed by God himself, as the end of the matter when people are stake. It is a courage to imagine an alternate future for those who are already under a death sentence by God, and the willingness to continue speaking and working for their welfare even when they themselves see that speech and action as traitorous. It is a love for the people under the burden of sin, suffering or about the suffer the consequences of that sin, that will not easily give up on them and accept them as hopeless even when they may well be hopeless, at least in the sense that they will likely not listen.
Jeremiah spent 40 years on a hopeless cause, and then wept over the people because they had refused to listen, and were going to die. And Jesus sat on the hillside outside Jerusalem near the end of his ministry, and wept over the city of Jerusalem because the people had refused to hear the message of Peace, and so would die. Can we do any less?
This text calls us to the kind of radical faith in God and love for people that will not give up on them no matter how hopeless they might seem. And it calls us to the ministry of intercession, not only in words and prayer, but in deeds and actions. It warns of setting ourselves aloof in our religious security, and calls us to place ourselves as one of the people, and speak of sinners and saints alike as "us."
This reading invites us, in spite of what we know, indeed perhaps because of what we know as God's people, to work out that intercession in any way possible. This text, if we catch the spirit of Jeremiah and hear it with the spirit of Jesus, will never again let us be complacent in the fact that we know the truth. That only means that we are called to action because of what we know.
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