Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6
While the term “shepherds” is a particularly agricultural term to us today that we also might more readily interpret in relationship to religious leaders, this passage is intensely political. If you believe that preaching isn’t or shouldn’t be political, you might want to look elsewhere in the lectionary readings for this week. Jeremiah 23:1-6 is an intense theo-political discourse in which God calls the political leaders of Judah—kings—to account for injustice and betrayal of the common people. (Theo-political here references the theocratic political system of Judah in which religion and politics were interwoven as well as contemporary discourse about the relationship of religion and politics.)
A review of the previous chapter is crucial for interpreting these verses. Chapter twenty-two is focused on denouncing the acts of wicked kings. What made them “wicked?” These leaders had forsaken justice, disregarded oppression, and had abandoned those most prone to being targeted in society—foreigners, widows, and orphans (22:3). There is even more detail (22:13) about failure to adequately pay persons and accruing massive amounts of wealth at the expense of those whom the kings had made poor. These kings had blood on their hands (22:17). Amidst these negative images, there are also positive images of what God expects from a ruler, namely doing what is right and just and caring for the poor and the needy (22:15-16).
Biblical and contemporary exegetical work around the categories of foreigner, widow, and orphans is also necessary to understand God’s condemnation in 23:1-6. While foreigners would have been those who were nondominant in ethnicity and culture, we must now also bring to bear the issue of race, which in our contemporary world is interwoven with issues of ethnicity and culture. Who are nondominant persons today in relationship to ethnicity, culture, and race? Widows and orphans not only likely experienced emotional trauma and economic instability, but in the Bible these categories often speak to persons who have been rendered vulnerable because they have been severed from the dominant social order. Who are widows and orphans today? Here we might speak to the status of those whom society isolates due to age, ability, sexuality, or gender. Whom does our society—rendering as verbs—orphan and widow?
The second portion of this passage envisions a different political environment—one in which God has gathered God’s people and installed just leaders. God is going to bring about justice not just in a personal sense, not in a distant eternity, but in a material and concrete way in the systems and offices of this world.
Be very careful here. Jesus is nowhere to be found in this passage. Full stop. This is sacred Hebrew scripture, and we need to be careful to not appropriate it as Christian scripture or to preach it in a way that denigrates or excludes the Jewish faith or our Jewish siblings. While this passage has a long history of being interpreted within the Christian tradition as a prophecy about Jesus, it is more than sufficient to speak about the longing for a messiah, God’s chosen one who will lead God’s people to justice. If you feel you must engage Jesus as part of your sermon on this passage, make it clear that this is a Christian interpretation that is only one perspective and not intrinsic to the text itself. In other words, be transparent about your interpretive work in ways that treat this Hebrew passage with integrity and hold as beloved our Jewish siblings.
Within our contemporary political discourse in which some Christian extremists argue for the installation of a theocracy in the United States of America (USA) and in which the Supreme Court seems willing to look anew at blurring the dividing lines between religion and the state (see Carson v. Makin and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District), this passage should be treated very carefully. Indeed, this passage emerges out of a theocratic context, and it envisions a more just theocratic fulfillment. Note however, that the concerns of the biblical text for the centering the wellbeing of the foreigner, widow, and poor are not paralleled in the political agendas of those who seek to reestablish something akin to a contemporary theocracy in the USA.
For those who long for leaders today who will lead us to God’s justice, this passage reminds us of God’s character and agenda. God preferentially cares for those who are targeted for violence by systems of oppression. The elite and powerful who disregard God’s values should beware! Amidst the unfolding of excessive inequality, ecological degradation, and the violent systems that do violence based on race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, or any other reductive human characterization, we can call out to God who is just, who is our savior!
It is important to note whenever preaching Jeremiah—to whom this book is attributed if only in the title and some portions of the text—what happens to those who call out for justice for those targeted by violent powers. Jeremiah died in exile. For those who carefully preach this passage in a manner that avoids mealy-mouthed generalities and evokes Jeremiah’s prophetic word reimagined for our context, expect to meet with resistance. Too frequently communities of faith and the finite human beings that comprise them have vested interest in the perpetuation of dominating social orders. Consider your calling to proclaim the Gospel—the good news of God’s liberating work in us and in the world. Also consider the capacities of your congregation. Can you find ways to affirm your congregation while also stretching their awareness of God’s expansive love and justice and their own sense of their place within that? Can you give thanks for the good in your congregation while also repenting of that which yet remains undone and recommitting to pursue God’s justice more fully?