Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

God is nearby, not far off.

In the Vineyard
Millet, Jean François, "In the Vineyard" from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

August 18, 2013

First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 23:23-29

God is nearby, not far off.

Read and heard in isolation that affirmation can evoke multiple responses, many of which might evade the sting of Jeremiah’s challenge to readers and hearers, both ancient and current. In Jeremiah 23, the nearness of God is not a comfort. God is so near that there are no secret places. Rather than a refuge, here God’s nearness results in complete exposure. There are no secret places; there is no place that is out-of-sight.

What if the metaphor were reversed? What if God were far off? That might imply less exposure. Speech about God as creator, maker of heaven and earth, can seem less relational and intimate. But here it would also be no comfort. God fills heaven and earth and thus from that angle God is also pervasively present. Whether near or far, it means exposure, not refuge and comfort.

What is exposed? A false construal of reality. God has heard the prophets speaking words they have not been commissioned to speak. These prophets are not religious outsiders. They conform to the rubrics of prophetic speech. They speak in God’s name (“in my name”), not in the name of an alien deity. They know that proper prophetic speech does come from a realm other than their own imagination or intellect and thus they appeal to the realm of dreams. Dreams come unbidden as does proper prophetic speech. In fact, it is so unbidden that the prophetic books frequently introduce it with the phrase “Thus says the Lord.”

When the rhetorical format becomes customary, it is open to manipulation. The audience cannot depend on the form to determine the reliability of what is communicated. A deceitful heart can manipulate the accepted form to steer the audience in the wrong direction. Here the prophets who have hopeful words for the immediate future of Jerusalem are speaking what they wish to hear. Their dream for a good future is their own wishful thinking. The problem is not that they claim to have had a dream; dreams are not in-and-of themselves the problem. The problem is that the dream was not from God.

There is nothing disruptive about the revelation they claim. It fits the prophets’ own interests. If convincing, the people will continue to acknowledge their authority. Their social prestige is not threatened. Their status quo stays the same. Perhaps their reassurance of each other is a sign that their words are not from God. The first of deception may not be all that crass. Hoping their dreams are true but having a premonition that their self-construed conception of reality is crumbling, they seek reassurance from each other. Repetition among the likeminded can produce a modicum of certainty.

God expresses exasperation with these prophets, using the classic expression of lament: How long? Will they never turn back their hearts? The questions assume the answer that they never will. The earlier incursion by the Babylonians had brought about no change of heart. Calls for repentance had gone unheeded. The prophetic lies are relentless. They appear firmly entrenched in their hope-filled self-deception. But… No, there is no “but” in this text to suggest a silver lining. After all the bad news, there is no room for a homiletic turn that frequently starts with “but the good news is….”

But these dreaming prophets are not simply harming themselves. They mislead the general population. Their speech employs the name of God to lead people away from God. The true word for that time is a word of judgment, not a word of hope. If the people believe these prophets, they will not repent. What do the people have to fear if the future is good? False hope precludes repentance. The falsehood becomes even more acute if the true prophetic word is a non-contingent word of judgment.

Even though these prophets employing God’s name, not the name of an alien deity, they may as well be using the name of Baal. What they are saying will not lead to fidelity to God; it leads away from God. The God that actually exists is forgotten. If the false prophets lead the people to trust a deception, they have committed an act as reprehensible as leading their allegiance toward Baal. Leading the people away from God is the equivalent of leading to Baal. The name of the alternative may change from the past to the present, but the net result is still a false hope and therefore a false trust.

Where does the chapter leave us as readers? It leaves us with the issue of true and false prophesy unresolved in the present tense moment of the narrative action. There is no way for the initial audience to know who is speaking the truth. There is no formal difference. Stating that the false prophets speak their own dreams in contrast to Jeremiah who speaks the words compelled by divine command would not help the hearer distinguish a false dream from a true word. What is “straw” and what is “wheat” is not immediately evident.

Yet the metaphors used in the text do force a distinction and thus the question of allegiance does not go away. It is as though the text concedes the problem of distinction at the moment the contrasting messages are spoken. One will be straw and one will be wheat. We are not given the task to sort them out as if our future would be secured if we make the right choice. It is not a system to be gamed nor is it test of our powers of discernment. We will not make the judgment go away if we make the right choice.

The immediate future is judgment. The fire of the true prophet word will burn in judgment. The hammer will strike the rock to pieces. God may create future life from the ashes. God may build a future from the rubble the hammer creates. Those futures will be spoken elsewhere in the book of Jeremiah, but it is important not to facilely cancel the fiery, pulverizing word of this text with hopeful words elsewhere in the book. Those words of hope are spoken in the ashes and pulverized rock. They are a response to and within the reality of the exile asserted here; they are not an exemption from exile or any other harsh form of judgment. To declare exemption is to align with the dreaming prophets of Jeremiah 23.