Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

No one likes to be the bearer of bad news.

The Poor Invited to the Feast
JESUS MAFA. The Poor Invited to the Feast, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.

September 1, 2013

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 2:4-13

No one likes to be the bearer of bad news.

Yet, bearing bad news is an integral part of the prophetic task. It is the focal point of the disparaging task to which God calls the prophet Jeremiah. Although restoration is the ultimate goal, the path toward restoration entails the devastating announcement that Israel’s world will be turned upside down.

Jeremiah’s initial words of doom in chapter two immediately follow the description of his call and related visions in chapter one. After a few reminisces in Jeremiah 2:1-3, God begins by questioning the divine self. Self-examination is difficult. Most people avoid it. Like any mature individual who acknowledges personal responsibility before accusing someone else, God takes on this difficult task. In effect, God asks, “What did I do?” This is an astonishing question on the lips of the sovereign LORD. It opens the door to the possibility of divine culpability and risks exposing questions of theodicy.

God will issue a call to repentance, address justice issues, and announce hope of restoration, but for now, as Jeremiah begins to prophesy, God wants to know what went wrong. God wonders how the devotion of the early years lost their allure. It is as though God wonders, “How did the ‘honeymoon’ of yesterday turn into a time of ‘separation’ for today?”

God’s willingness to take this risk is due to God’s love for the beloved nation. Abraham J. Heschel explains the depth of the relationship. He writes, “Israel’s distress was more than a human tragedy. With Israel’s distress came the affliction of God, His displacement, His homelessness in the land, in the world.”[1] Hence God’s self-examining question in Jeremiah 2:5:

What wrong did your ancestors find in me
            that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?

Though the boundary between generations past, present, and future is permeable, God first inquires about the ancestors. The passage of time leaves God especially vulnerable to what might have gone wrong in the past. God could have failed during the time of the patriarchs, during the time of deliverance from Egypt or during Israel’s wilderness experience. God could have failed as the newly formed nation entered the land of promise or when leadership was turned over to a succession of judges, prophets, and kings. Even if the fault lies with the divine, God is willing to examine all of the possibilities. Once the question is broached, the answer seems unmistakably obvious. Terence E. Fretheim explains, “God’s question seems to be rhetorical, with the answer self-evident: God committed no wrong in the relationship.”[2]

Silently, all stand accused and guilty before God. Answers could have come from the communities of Jacob and Israel, the priests, those who handle the law, the rulers, or the prophets. None has a response to God’s question. Neither priests nor community asks, “Where is the LORD?” Those who handle the law did not know God. Theirs were sins of omission for “Where Yahweh is not known, justice is not embraced.”[3] Rulers transgressed and prophets prophesied falsely. Theirs were sins of commission.

As inseparable as two sides of a coin, the two evils — sins of omission and commission, forsaking God and turning to other gods — form the basis of God’s accusations. These sins were so embedded in the ethos of the nation that “destruction of its temple, loss of its king, and exile of its people to another land”[4] were an unfortunate, yet necessary and unavoidable part of the healing process. Fretheim discerns, “The people’s infidelity is so deep-seated that this judgmental divine response is set for generations to come.”[5]

God knows that worship of false gods leads to diminution of humanity, individual and communal. Accordingly, God assesses that Israel has become as worthless as the false gods that the nation worships. God calls on the heavens to witness this sad state of affairs in which Israel has exchanged its God of living water for non-existent gods. The offense is so outlandish that everyone, from “the east (Cyprus) … to the west (Kedar),”[6] would be astonished.

Yet, hope remains. “Yahweh does not want simply to terminate the relation, but is willing to struggle, perhaps to fix blame, perhaps also to recover the relationship.”[7] Fretheim explains that “in spite of their infidelities, God calls Israel ‘my people’ (vv 11, 13).”[8] Even now, despite a multitude of sins of omission and commission, God will not give up on Israel. Even now, there is hope for the nation. This hope, which is rooted and grounded in the nature of the divine, will not fail. In Jeremiah’s prophecies, Israel’s hope is as sure as its doom. Hope such as this is ever present, encouraging humanity, individually and collectively, to embrace God’s best, no matter what.

[1] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 112.

[2] Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 64.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 35.

[4] Alphonetta Wines, “Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy — An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible” (PhD diss., Texas Christian University, 2011), 31.

[5] Fretheim, Jeremiah, 66.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah, 35.

[8] Fretheim, Jeremiah, 67.