“Terror All Around!”

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Jer 20:10-13; Rom 5:12-15; Mt 10:26-33

“Terror All Around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” (Jer 20:10)

It would seem that Jeremiah had come to be known among his “friends” and co-religionists as “Terror All Around.” Perhaps they had grown weary of hearing him repeat the phrase. Nobody likes a whiner, and particularly odious is anyone who dares to suggest that the “good guys” might not be square with God.

Jeremiah, by Michelangelo (c. 1512)There is something at once disarming yet alarming about Jeremiah: Jeremiah is a bona fide failure. He has come down to us in history as one of the very greatest of the greats, and he provides us with perhaps our best interpretive tool for understanding the Hebrew Nabi – a line that culminates in Jesus of Nazareth (sorry, Mohammed), but the fact remains that, in his day and time, Jeremiah was a dismal failure.

That he was rejected by the religious establishment of his day is unsurprising – such often tends to be the role of the prophet. It is a sad fact of religious existence that the insecure and impenitent can and sometimes do take refuge in the certainty and immunity that religious authority invariably claims to provide. I say this not to demean religious authority as such, but merely to state what is already well-known: that religion, especially when it is politically (or financially) potent, is not the exclusive domain of saints, but is also compromised by self-seekers, and even knaves.

That Jeremiah was rejected by the political leadership is even less surprising. This, too, is the usual fate of the prophet. King Josiah notwithstanding, few and far between are the political leaders with the humility and piety to listen to the Word of God without responding in violence. Although the office of the Nabi proper is closed with Jesus, the Word of God is still spoken by those who are honest enough to bear its burden, and courageous enough to bear its consequences.

Jesus says to his disciples: “You will be universally hated on account of my name” (Mk 13:13). Said another way: the “prophet” who has climbed into bed with the generals and politicians is a fraud. This is not to say that Christian faith does not have political consequences – it does indeed – it is to say that the Christian voice raised in the midst of political struggle must be one that takes the gospel as its self-understanding and basis of discernment, not political alliance or “tribal” interests. The truth must be proclaimed to all parties, and hence, we will be (or should be) “hated by all.” (Mt 10:22)

Jeremiah smashing the earthen vessel in Topheth, by James Tissot (c. 1888)The Hebrews of Jeremiah’s time were quite convinced that, because they were genuinely God’s people (as indeed they were) who were worshiping the One True God within the context of creation’s only Divinely ordained religion, that their political and religious institutions would not – could not – fall. The people (not to mention the priests and the princes) were not able to hear the criticism of Jeremiah – the Word of God – being too full of bad religion for that. All of Scripture warns us repeatedly of the errors of assuming that uncritical religion (or politics) can keep us in good stead with God. God’s prophets may end up in cisterns or on crosses, but they represent our only true hope; they represent God, who never ceases to call us into deeper conversion.

And let it be said that there was no shortage of “prophets” to give this view religious legitimization. Indeed, they had the witness of the great prophet Isaiah to point to, oblivious to the perplexing proviso that Isaiah spoke God’s Word to a different time in different circumstances – and faith is not magic; the Word cannot be invoked like an incantation.

There is likewise no shortage in the world today of self-styled prophets, clamoring for the soapbox. Especially in the religious sphere, it’s hard not to trip over “prophetic witness” claims to point out the true path to redemption, or righteousness, or whatever the goal is presumed to be. But anyone conversant with the Old Testament knows that most of the prophets were false. It means nothing to be “prophetic” without being bound by the Word of God – as actually spoken by God. In fact, for those who preach their own understanding in the name of propheticism, it might just be their undoing:

2 “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, prophesy and say to those who prophesy out of their own minds: `Hear the word of the LORD!’ 3 Thus says the Lord GOD, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! 4 Your prophets have been like foxes among ruins, O Israel. 5 You have not gone up into the breaches, or built up a wall for the house of Israel, that it might stand in battle in the day of the LORD. 6 They have spoken falsehood and divined a lie; they say, `Says the LORD,’ when the LORD has not sent them, and yet they expect him to fulfill their word. 7 Have you not seen a delusive vision, and uttered a lying divination, whenever you have said, `Says the LORD,’ although I have not spoken?” 8 Therefore thus says the Lord God: “Because you have uttered delusions and seen lies, therefore behold, I am against you, says the Lord GOD. 9 My hand will be against the prophets who see delusive visions and who give lying divinations; they shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel; and you shall know that I am the Lord GOD.
(Ezekiel 13:2-9 RSV)

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known” (Mt 10:26)

Why do prophets like Jesus and Jeremiah say things like this? If the people had listened to Jeremiah and had trusted YHWH, Jerusalem would have stood. But the people chose to trust the authority of the powerful instead. We should not think that this was an obvious mistake to them – in their own way, they were expressing a confidence in the God of their fathers. But they were filled with fear and pride, not humility and repentance; their eyes were fixed on the enemy at the gate, rather than on God, who transcends human structures – even those Divinely ordained – and sometimes speaks through riff-raff like Jeremiah. Such dialectics still arise, and it takes both courage and spiritual humility to engage them with fidelity to the God who gives voice to both parties.

What Jesus is telling his disciples in this week’s gospel is that we are to tell the truth in the face of whatever potential persecution we might met, whether social, religious, or political (“for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles” Mt 10:17-18). Fear should have no part in our decision-making (“So, do not be afraid”). But this is easier said than done, for our confidence must be in God, but it can be very difficult in practice to tell the difference between God and the religious and/or political structures we identify with (hence the popularity of the tribal deity that goes by the name of “God & Country,” not to mention jihadism).

The bottom line is that it’s hard to trust God. It is always a choice, and there is always an alternative, and the alternative is almost always compelling. When Jesus tells us that the Father values us more than so many sparrows, it seems like a weak argument – and certainly doesn’t convince many to jump out of trees expecting to fly better than sparrows. Radical faith in God is all too easy to paint as religious quackery, but that’s just an excuse to avoid the hard work of discernment. As Jeremiah shows us, being faithful to God is precisely about that discernment; about learning to lay self-interest aside (personal or tribal), and being willing to embrace the challenge God constantly presents us to continue in His Word.

Jeremiah in the Pit, by Marc Chagall (1956)This week’s readings are an invitation to shed our fears, and to put our faith in God, because the “free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:15) is a sure thing. There is no longer any excuse for allowing fear and pride to dull our ears to the prophetic voice of the Spirit calling us as disciples of Christ to speak truth to power, and to let God worry about the enemy at the gate. There are no shortcuts to peace through expediency. Too many Jeremiahs never get pulled out of the cistern, and we need them around to remind us of what we are created to be.