Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Individuals amid a mass trauma do not react uniformly

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June 30, 2024

First Reading
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Commentary on Lamentations 3:22-33


Last week, I invited the preacher to consider counter-testimony and lament from the pulpit as the congregation gathered around Job’s drama. Now, we find ourselves again in lament, specifically the book of Lamentations. As The Inclusive Bible highlights, the title of this book in Hebrew is “‘êkah … an expletive, a cry of anguish … generally used as the first word of a Hebrew dirge.”1 The title, translated into the English language, and its expression of grief and despair, could alternatively be set as “Aaaugh!”2 So why do we hear such hopeful refrains in this lectionary selection?

The many expressions of trauma

Like Job, Lamentations is a book with a chorus of many voices and perspectives. Like Job, these voices are responding to trauma. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylonians in 587 BCE.3 What we read in this book is a poetic, polyphonic response to mass trauma. The city is struggling together to maintain faith in the whirlwind of suffering. According to Adele Berlin, some 35 voices are woven into this short book, ranging from children, parents, to political and religious leaders, prisoners, and widows.4 The disaster does not impact all of the community in the same way. Lamentations, as a whole, makes this claim.

If you read the full chapter, you notice that the previous 21 verses reflect the despair of the speaker. Why is the speaker despairing? Because this undeserved suffering came from Yahweh. The speaker is not simply accusing God of ignoring or not responding to their suffering. The speaker directly accuses God of causing the suffering.

“I am the target of God’s arrows,” bemoans the speaker (Lamentations 3:12, The Inclusive Bible).

Scholars do not believe this to be a complete switch-a-roo as our selection for this week (3:22–33) shifts from despair to a voice that sounds strangely familiar to the voices in Job. Nothing has suddenly changed the first speaker’s perspective. Their testimony in verses 1–21 begins and ends in despair. But now we hear another voice, grappling with suffering from another perspective.

God may punish now,
But will show compassion and the fullness of love. (3:32)

I wonder how the congregation might experience this framing of Lamentations, given that many Christians are quite familiar with the verses that begin the lectionary passage:

YHWH’s favor is not exhausted,
Nor has God’s compassion failed.
They rise up anew each morning,
So great is God’s faithfulness. (3:22–23)

We have another opportunity in Ordinary Time to reflect on where the good news can be found when suffering disrupts an ordinary life (see my contribution last week on Job 38). 

Preaching tradition or preaching experience?

According to some scholars, this voice we hear today is the voice of tradition.[5] In many places in the Hebrew Bible, national trauma for Judah is the result of unfaithfulness. The trauma will not last forever, and God will not reject them forever (3:31).

This voice is not like the voice of desperation, despair, and suffering that precedes it. Tradition’s voice seeks to correct the voice of lamentation, pointing away from the individual’s torment to the hesed (steadfast love) of God. Tradition says to the one lamenting that they cannot see God’s greater plan and, so, must be patient. God is not a tormentor. God is just and compassionate.

Where will you dwell, preacher? In the voice of tradition (our lectionary selection) or the voice of the suffering (the voices around the voice of tradition articulating their experiences of trauma)? Or both (or all 30+)?

This week’s selection is a chance for the preacher to reflect on their embedded theology of suffering and perhaps to help the congregation do likewise. Do we believe God punishes? That God’s mercy never fails, even when violence, disease, and torment act as counter-testimony? How does the preacher—bearer of tradition—proclaim the good news in the midst of an ever-growing number of deconstructing and doubting Christians without suggesting that this text condones being slapped in the face and submitting themselves to ridicule and insult (3:28–30)?

Of course, we can preach in ways that place experience and tradition into constructive (or deconstructive) dialogue. Another approach to this text could be reflection on how individuals amid a mass trauma do not react uniformly. We can also hold space, perhaps by reading beyond the lectionary, for polyphonic response to dwell side by side without fixing or cleaning up the complexities and inconsistencies of theological articulation (God made this happen! God does not see the suffering we see! No, God doesn’t do such a thing to the people God loves! God might punish now, but not forever!).

This text can be a jumping-off point (especially linked with the Job selection from last week) into a Christian framework for suffering without neat and tidy answers.

One thing I would encourage you to not do is to connect this text to the gospel reading. This is because such a side-by-side reading could imply that while the God of the Hebrew Bible punishes or ignores people who suffer, Jesus sees and responds (Mark 5:21–43). There is plenty of material for the sermon in Lamentations alone that can connect with enduring theological questions and concerns within the congregation and ourselves.


  1. Priests for Equality, “Lamentations,” in The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 472.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Balu Savarikannu, “A Polyphonic Reading of Lamentations 3,” in Journal of Asian Evangelical Theology 20 (2016), no. 2: 25–43, accessed April 11, 2024.
  4. Adele Berlin, Lamentations: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 13-15.
  5. Ibid.
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