Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

How are the faithful to respond in times of pressing difficulty?

September 20, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 11:18-20

How are the faithful to respond in times of pressing difficulty?

The Hebrew Bible contains many rich traditions to address such questions. In this passage, the prophet Jeremiah offers a lament or complaint to God. His prayer addresses the conflict that is intrinsic to his calling to proclaim the word of the LORD to Judah, a community that persistently resists his message of judgment. The lection from the First Testament resonates with the themes from this week’s Psalms (Psalm 54 or Psalm 1 in other lectionaries), which address the different destinies for the righteous and the wicked, the faithful and the unfaithful.

The gospel text from Mark 9:30–37 also pairs nicely with this complaint from Jeremiah since it emphasizes Jesus’ prediction of his future betrayal at the cross and his current frustration with the disciples’ lack of understanding. These verses from Jeremiah 11 provide the preacher with a rich theological resource for addressing the life of prayer in the context of injustice.

Jeremiah 11:18–20 is the first section of a larger prayer that extends to 12:6. This is the first of six laments in the book of Jeremiah. The other five are 15:10–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–13; and 20:14–18. These painfully wrought poetic texts also are known as the confessions of Jeremiah. The lament or complaint is the most prevalent form of biblical prayer in the Bible. Through it a person or community seeks to confront the harsh realities of life–sickness, persecution from enemies, slander, the threat of death, or national tragedy. The petitioner also simultaneously addresses the God who is the very source of these difficulties.

The lament form is composed of five elements:
1) an invocation of God (“How long O Lord?”)
2) a description of the psalmist’s predicament
3) a plea for help
4) an affirmation of trust in God
5) a final vow to praise

The biblical laments do not necessarily contain all of these elements. However, the movement from lament to trust is typical, though there are some psalms that end in dislocation without positive resolution (for example, Psalm 88). The theology that informs these prayers is different than our contemporary culture of complaint. In ancient Israel, the lament is an act of faithfulness. It is how the righteous pray in the face of injustice. The anger that is expressed in these prayers can be alarming to modern church-goers.

One must remember, however, that the complaints were not self-absorbed prayers of discontent. They were set within the context of public or family worship. Therefore, lament is a faithful individual or communal response to adversity. It confronts both life’s harsh realities and the God who is sovereign over all aspects of our existence, including our suffering.

Jeremiah 11:18-12:6 divides into three parts:
1) the first complaint (11:18–20)
2) the LORD’s response and vindication of the prophet (11:21–23)
3) the second complaint (12:1–6)

The first section summarizes Jeremiah’s situation and is followed immediately in verses 21–23 with the LORD’s vindication of the prophet against those who oppose his message. The second complaint in 12:1–6 frames Jeremiah’s difficulty through a familiar theological dilemma in the Hebrew Bible, that is, the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. The LORD initially commissioned Jeremiah to proclaim a difficult word of judgment to Judah and the nations (Jeremiah 1:4–10). Therefore, this particular lament must be viewed within the broader context of the prophet’s vocation. It is a faithful response to suffering that is tied to Jeremiah’s identity and obedience to the LORD’s calling.

Verse 18 begins the first complaint with a summary statement of illumination. The LORD has revealed the intentions of the wicked to Jeremiah. Thus, the prophet sees his difficulties through God’s perspective, enabling him to recognize that his opponents seek to do him harm. This brief recognition, however, does not alleviate the suffering that he encounters.

In verse 19, Jeremiah’s trust in the LORD makes him vulnerable in the face of hostile opposition. He is like a lamb being led to the slaughter. His enemies seek to kill him while the prophet is still in his prime years–a tree that is ripe with produce in its fruit-bearing season. The wicked desire to cut him off from the “land of the living.” However, their schemes will not prevail over the LORD of hosts, who is the righteous judge and who tries the human “heart and mind” (verse 20). The LORD’s narrative trumps the plans of Jeremiah’s opponents. In God’s court of opinion, Jeremiah will be vindicated, because he has committed his ways to the LORD.

In times of distress, the confessions of Jeremiah teach us to turn to the grounding of our being, the one who calls us from the womb. The LORD is sovereign over all of human life, both in times of blessing and adversity. There will be times when living into a prophetic witness will require the faithful to stand in opposition to those who benefit from or are deeply attached to the existing order of things.

In such situations, resistance will be fierce. Speaking truth to power demands much from prophets both ancient and modern. The confessions of Jeremiah remind us that though others may scheme to do harm to those who proclaim truth, ultimately, it is God’s ways that will prevail. Lament provides the worshipping community with access to the ultimate power and authority, inviting those who suffer in the face of injustice to lift their complaint to heaven. This ancient form of prayer suggests that, when things go wrong, God expects the faithful to question vigorously the very one who judges both heart and mind. Indeed, it is Jesus who teaches us to pray through the words of an ancient lament, as he faces his enemies on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” (Psalm 22:1, KJV).