Sunday, February 3, 2013

Lonely, weeping prophets

We know more about Jeremiah than we know about any of the other Hebrew prophets. He lived from around 647BC to 582 and was chosen by God for a forty year ministry which brought him constant persecution from his own people. He poured himself out in dedication to God and in love for the people, but he was a desperately lonely man. He seems to have had very few close friends. Also, for the sake of his ministry he was obedient to the Lord and remained unmarried. 

His opponents did everything they could possibly do to silence him. They arrested him and tried him in court on trumped up charges. They beat him up and put him in prison. They even lowered him into a stinking sewer and left him to die . . . that is, until the king was persuaded to get him out. He survived a number of assassination attempts.

So it’s not surprising that when we read his writing we come across truly terrifying outbursts of spiritual anguish. Look at these words from Chapter 15 of the Book of Jeremiah:

“Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land . . . all of them curse me.” (v. 10) 

“Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? [O God] wilt thou be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail? (v. 18)

We don’t expect these sorts of words from the heroes of the Bible. But those men and women struggled just as we do in tough times. I love the way God lets us see them when they’re not doing so well!

Of course we also see that by faith they emerge from their times of torment and depression. That should encourage us.

If there is anything for us to learn from the people’s rejection of Jeremiah and his message, it is that because God wants a real relationship with his people he has given them the prerogative of saying “no” to his love. How else can this relationship be a free response of love? That’s why God lets us - as individuals and as communities - keep control of our own lives if we really want to push him away from us, in spite of the promises he makes, in spite of the blessing he says will be ours if we keep our hearts open to him, and in spite of the predicted unhappy consequences of our wilful rebellion.

God speaks to his people through the prophets. He cajoles them, he warns them, he declares his love for them, he tries to woo them back to himself. But they nearly always harden their hearts and turn away.

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading took us to the synagogue at Nazareth where Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 and says to the people, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

You would think, given that the news of his wonderful teaching and healing ministry in the district around Capernaum must have already drifted back to Nazareth, these people would be half expecting him to do in their midst what he had reportedly done in elsewhere. Well, there is a moment of admiration. But before long, a whole lot of negative talk gets going among them. (We know from Mark’s parallel account of this incident that Jesus longs to do wonderful things for his own townspeople, but “he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief.” - Mark 6:5-6)

The problem for the townspeople of Nazareth is twofold. First, Jesus had grown up there. Who did he think he was, saying that the Scriptures find their fulfilment in him! He replies: “no prophet is acceptable in his own country.” Jeremiah would be in hearty agreement with that statement!

Second, in his conversation with them, Jesus speaks of Gentiles who seemed to have shown more faith in God than the “cchosen ones” of Israel. The Jewish people didn’t think much of Gentiles - in fact some of them were even known to teach that God had created Gentiles to be “fuel for the fires of hell.” So they are offended when he acknowledges the faith of these “outsiders.”

Actually, “offended” is an understatement! St Luke says that they are “filled with wrath” and decide to get rid of Jesus. They take him out of town in order to hurl him down the cliff and kill him. But St Luke says that Jesus passes through the midst of them and leaves Nazareth.

Imagine the sorrow in the heart of Jesus that day! He knew these people. He had grown up with them. He longed to minister to them, to love them, to heal them, and to free them from the emptiness of their lives and their poverty of spirit. Deep within he feels as he does in Luke 19:41 when he weeps for the people of Jerusalem who rejected him. Or as he yearns for the city in Luke 13:34-35: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”

Jeremiah and Jesus were mocked and persecuted when they spoke God’s truth. And we will be, too, at least some of the time. God has called us lovingly to witness by deed and word to those around us in such a way that they will be inspired to respond to God’s love. 

But they might not respond. God gives them that choice, and as heartbreaking as it is, we must respect it and continue to love them regardless, as God does.

At a more public level, our Christian witness means standing uncompromisingly for justice and peace, the rights of the unborn and the elderly, and Christian principles on bioethical issues such as the mistreatment of human embryos in scientific research.

In modern post-Christian societies our friends are not so much offended when we have our say. They are more likely to be amused, and dismiss us with faint praise or a good-natured joke. Of course, that can be hurtful, too. But today’s Mass readings challenge us to recall Jesus, Jeremish, and all the weeping prophets, and join with them in their loneliness and rejection if that is what it costs to bear witness to God’s love for his people.


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