17th Week of Ordinary Time
July 27, 2016
Jer 15: 10, 16-21
Holy Cross, Champaign
You all remember reading Hamlet in high school? You might even remember the advice the courtier Polonius gives to his son Laertes before he heads off to university. Amid the 20 or so lines is this:
Neither a borrower nor a lender be,For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulleth edge of husbandry.
(For those not up on 17th-century English, husbandry means “control and judicious use of resources. But we still speak of “husbanding our resources, don’t we?)
But borrowing and lending aren’t what’s gotten Jeremiah into a black mood, into a deep hole in Jerusalem’s social life. Poor Jeremiah! Altho he says today that he’s devoured the Lord’s words, and those words “became my joy and the happiness of my heart” (15:16), he’s not at all a happy fellow. He’s the prototype of the prophet of doom: “a man of strife and contention to all the land!” (15:10). In the 1st line we heard tonite, Jeremiah laments his birth, and in another passage he curses the day of his birth and the man who brought its supposed good news to his father (20:14-15).
|Michelangelo's Jeremiah: Sistine Chapel|
Why? Because he himself is the object of men’s curses—not because he’s been a stingy lender or a profligate borrower, but because of that word of God that he’s devoured; because he bears the name of the Lord of hosts, meaning that he knows he’s a prophet of the Lord, however unwilling, and everyone knows he claims to speak in the Lord’s name, whether they want to believe it or not.
The trouble is, they don’t believe it, or don’t want to believe it: not the king, not the nobles, not the priests (and Jeremiah himself belongs to a priestly family). We don’t really know what the common people—the 99%—thought, and in biblical times that didn’t count for much anyway. And nobody likes someone who’s always got a big black cloud over his head, warning of God’s anger and the coming destruction of Western civilization, or in Jeremiah’s case, of Jerusalem and all of Judah.
So Jeremiah is alone, an outcast: “I did not sit celebrating in the circle of merrymakers; under the weight of your hand”—he’s addressing God—“I sat alone because you filled me with indignation” (15:17). Jeremiah’s indignant because of his people’s sins—their worship of Baal and Astarte, their oppression of the poor, their violations of the Sabbath, their disregard for the covenant between them and the Lord God—and indignant because of the situation that God’s put him in: “Why is my pain continuous, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? You have indeed become for me a treacherous brook, whose waters do not abide!” (15:19). Another time he yells at God, “You deceived me, O God, and I was deceived” (20:7), or in Msgr. Ronald Knox’s more colloquial rendition, “[You] sent me on a fool’s errand.”
Jeremiah’s ticked off at God and is telling him so. We’ve all heard, “No good deed goes unpunished,” and Jeremiah’s going thru that in spades.
Consolation isn’t exactly what God answers him with: “If you repent, so that I restore you, in my presence you shall stand. If you bring forth the precious without the vile, you shall be my mouthpiece. Then it shall be they who turn to you, and you shall not turn to them” (15:19). The Lord goes on to promise that Jeremiah will be able to withstand the insults and assaults of the people because God will stand by him.
Do you ever feel like Jeremiah? Feel like you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do to be a good family member, good employee, good disciple of Jesus—and you get the cold shoulder, unfair blame, insufficient credit, or worse?
Unfortunately, that’s part of life. Not only Jeremiah but also Jesus had the experience. Like Jeremiah, Jesus felt isolated and abandoned. His chosen friends betrayed him, denied him, and ran away. Even his Father seemed to have forsaken him, as Jesus cries out from his cross, quoting Ps 22 (Mark 15:34). The psalmists, too, do their share of moaning to God.
Both Jeremiah and Jesus show us that we can complain to God about the events of our lives, the people in our lives, the flow of our lives. We can lay it all out—because God is our Father, our abba or daddy, Jesus calls him and teaches us to call him (last Sunday’s gospel—Luke 11:2). God can handle our distress, our anger, our despondency; and we ought to express them to him.
Then, like Jeremiah, we have to listen to God’s reply. God told him to suck it up, to get his prophetic act back together—to be faithful to his vocation, and God would be faithful to him.
Faithfulness was Jesus’ approach too. “Abba, not what I will but what you will,” he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36); and on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
Mother Teresa used to say, “God doesn’t call us to be successful but to be faithful.” That’s a struggle, for sure, for us who aren’t Mother Teresa. Yet from her private letters we know now, years after her death and approaching her canonization, that she spent years in spiritual darkness, not feeling, not experiencing, the presence of God in her life. But she persevered, as all of us can—because we know God loves us. That love is the treasure in the field for which we risk everything, the pearl of great price that we grab hold of (cf. Matt 13:44-46) because we know its incomparable value.
We look also to the example of our Blessed Mother, who experienced untold pain and grief—her traditional 7 sorrows—but we know how richly God has rewarded her faithfulness and perseverance. We invoke her protection and intercession as we too strive to be faithful and persevere in following her Son.