Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

One difficulty that preachers will face with this text is sorting out the individual and communal import of Jeremiah.

August 31, 2008

First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 15:15-21

One difficulty that preachers will face with this text is sorting out the individual and communal import of Jeremiah.

An initial reading of the text tips heavily in the direction of individual concerns. The first person singular pronoun occurs repeatedly. Jeremiah is, in his own telling, beset by persecutors (15:15). Jeremiah argues to God that he has been faithful. He has ingested God’s Word and avoided unsavory conduct. This has isolated him and made him a target. He pleads to God from whom he expects understanding and acknowledgement. Read only at the individual level, contemporary preachers may, in situations of congregational conflict, be tempted to join Jeremiah in an un-nuanced call for “retribution…on [their] persecutors” (NRSV).

But the biblical interest is not in Jeremiah’s inner religious life. The book of Jeremiah is not a spiritual biography; it does not merely report laments articulated by Jeremiah. Israel has an investment in the retention of Jeremiah’s life-story.

The book as a whole knows that Israel too will suffer torment and cry in agony in exile. In fact, the people have anticipated Jeremiah’s prayer: “Remember and do not break your covenant with us” (14:21). Beyond the parallel plea to be remembered, both the people and Jeremiah claim to be called by the name of God (14:9 and 15:16). The laments by the people in 14:7-9 and 19-22 are both rejected (14:10ff. and 15:1ff.). The people are seeking to have God maintain the covenant while they are blatantly breaking it. This will not work. Judgment in the shape of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile are, at that point, irreversible.

There will, however, be a time in judgment (that is, in exile) when the cry of lament is not an attempt to manipulate. Rachel’s weeping will need divine comfort and compassion (31:15-17). The people will again cry, “Remember!” Lamentations 5:1 reads: “Remember, O LORD, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!” (NRSV). This cry does not seek to forestall judgment; rather, it is spoken in the midst of judgment. The shift from Jeremiah 14 to Lamentations (and Rachel in Jeremiah 31) is a shift from seeking preservation to pleading for restoration from judgment.

Other echoes, ironies, and interweavings exist between Jeremiah and the people. In 2:13, the people are charged both with forsaking their God, “the fountain of living water,” and with replacing that God with cisterns that could not hold water. In his hardship, Jeremiah reverses the image: Has “the fountain of living water” become a “deceitful brook” that fails as much as the cisterns chosen by the people? The biblical lament tradition repeatedly reaches such intensity and sanctions such speech. There is no demand to talk “nice.”

Jeremiah terms his pain and wound to be unceasing, incurable, and un-healable. Note Jeremiah 30:12 regarding the people for comparison: “For thus says the LORD: Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous.” Israel undoubtedly asked, “Why?” And the answer was given: “Because your guilt is great, because your sins are so numerous, I have done these things to you” (30:15). Jeremiah himself is not so charged. He, in fact, pleads the contrary: “I did not sit in the company of merrymakers” (15:17). Even so, Jeremiah’s wound refuses to be healed as Rachel’s cry refuses to be comforted. Once in exile and the full extent of judgment, Israel’s wound will be healed: “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says the LORD, because they have called you an outcast: “It is Zion; no one cares for her!”” (Jeremiah 30:17). When the just judgment (= the wound) of Israel is turned into an occasion for mocking Israel, then God acts to heal, redeem, save, deliver — a host of verbs come into play at that point.

Yet one more interweaving: Jeremiah initially experienced joy and delight in taking up his prophetic vocation (15:16). The same words appear to have characterized the expected life God intended for Israel, but now, in the latter days of their nationhood, both joy and delight are to be cut off (7:34; 16:9; 25:10 — the Hebrew terms are the same). This too shall be reversed. Both terms reappear in the restoration. The “sounds of joy and gladness” will return “as they were before” (33:10-11). In fact, this restoration will be a source of God’s own joy (33:6-9).

In the lectionary text under consideration, Jeremiah does not experience this full restoration. He has yet to complete his part in God’s bringing judgment on Israel. Verse 19 brings in conditional language. An “if” and “if not” had once been an option for Israel, but it repeatedly had responded with a declaration that “we will not” (6:16-17). Jeremiah’s demanded return is not the same as the earlier demands placed on Israel (e.g., 3:12, 14; 4:1-2). Jeremiah is to return to his commissioning in chapter 1. Much of 1:18-19 is repeated here. Note the references to metal, fighting, not prevailing, and rescuing.

But more is said in chapter 15 than in chapter 1. Verse 21 extends the reference to the opponents. They are called the “wicked” and the “cruel.” The extension hints at some concession to Jeremiah’s characterization of what he is enduring (“on your account I suffer insult” 15:16). The conditional of verse 19 recedes as God’s unconditional commitment to Jeremiah in chapter 1 and is echoed and extended in chapter 15. Yes, return is always appropriate, but God’s call to Jeremiah was finally not contingent upon it.

And lurking in the individual assurance to Jeremiah is hope for Israel. When in exile, it wonders if the wicked and the cruel permanently control its future. In the singular “you” of verse 21 resides the possibility of a plural “you.” That move can be prematurely and presumptively invoked as in chapter 14. But in the midst of judgment, that shift is Israel’s hope. Rachel/Israel will be comforted as Jeremiah was supported against its opposition. Israel, in exile, recognized that in Jeremiah’s vocation its own destiny was mirrored. The one appointed to be against them was supported by the God who is their hope.