It has been a noisy week, and a troubling one on many fronts. Just over a week ago, the nation reeled under the impact of Hurricane Harvey, which bodes well to be the most destructive and costly natural disaster in our history. Millions were transfixed by television coverage of the calamity, as Houston, Corpus Christi, and Beaumont, among smaller towns and communities, were torn asunder by the winds and then flooded. In all this, it was heartening to witness the heroic efforts of so many citizens (including undocumented immigrants) to save the desperate and helpless, even pets, from the rising water. Miraculously, there seems to have been little looting, although it seems impossible to avoid some bad behavior even in such trying situations.
The week ended with what North Korean officials describe as the greatest nuclear detonation so far in their recent program – an H-bomb, they say. One they would like to fit on an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. The specter of nuclear war has risen again to haunt the world with the terrible fruit of technologically advanced conflict. And incendiary rhetoric.
To say that we live in difficult times is an understatement at the very least. But impending disaster has often been the lot of humankind, and today’s first reading from the Book of Jeremiah returns us to one of these
threatening calamities from the ancient world.
In prison, Jeremiah first complains to God that his faithful preaching of the message God entrusted to him has resulted in opposition, hatred, persecution, and now — chains. He’s had it. God fooled him, duped him the reading says, although the Hebrew is much more blunt and unflattering. Jeremiah had to trust God very much to use that tone of voice!
But the prophet has been put on a very painful spot. The Babylonians are threatening Jerusalem, and the frightened King Zedekiah wants to nail down an alliance with his pagan neighbors to defend the city. He also wants Jeremiah to predict success. But God has revealed to Jeremiah that the city will be taken and the king and nobles led away into captivity.
That’s not what Zedekiah wants to hear. It gets even worse. Jeremiah is beaten and thrown into prison by the son of the High Priest. But Jeremiah keeps right on preaching, even after the king has him freed. No one believes him, of course, and so he complains bitterly to God: “O LORD, you really screwed me, and I fell for it!” [20:7]
So the background of today’s first reading finds Jeremiah dealing with his own fear and reluctance to tell the emissaries of King Zedekiah what they do not want to hear, what the king does not want to hear, what no one wants to hear. It is not good news. And he has already paid for it by being beaten and imprisoned. Now he fears for his life. But he goes on preaching the truth, and in the end, he suffers for it. But he also knows that God will one day redeem the captives and bring the exiles home again. He will be vindicated. He testifies, “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.” [Jeremiah 31:31.]
Now if you remember back to the readings of 25th of June, the 12th Sunday of the year, what St. Paul wrote to the Christian Romans of the first century was not only that sin and death came into human experience through Adam but that grace and life also overcame them through Jesus Christ. In both cases a single human being changed everything – for the worse or for the better. On a deeper level, he , too, was talking about resisting the pressure of the majority who just happen to be wrong, just as in the story of Jeremiah.
In today’s passage, Paul changes his pitch, but not his message, exhorting the Romans not to be shaped and determined by the views of the age, the wisdom of the world, but, as he says, “to be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Then you can judge what is really God’s will — what is good, pleasing, and complete.
Back in June, Matthew’s gospel was focused on Jesus’ exhortation not to let people intimidate you, especially when it comes to speaking out fearlessly against injustice and evil. Now, several chapters later, Matthew recalls how Jesus warned his followers that anyone who wants to be his true disciple must be willing to suffer and die for that Gospel, that message of Good News.
And so it all comes around — like Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus, to preach the uncomfortable truth, to resist the easy path of violence and revenge, to oppose those who seek security in military might, alliances, and weapons of mass destruction — all this will result in fierce opposition, persecution, imprisonment, and possibly death.
Now what has any of that to do with us? Over the past year, we have been exposed to a barrage of hate-filled speech, directed against many of our own citizens and to others in the greater world. We have been tempted to withdraw assistance from the poor and needy, the aged and infirm, those who in the bible’s favored terms are most in need of aid – the orphan, widow, and resident alien in the land. Many of the calamities faced by the people of Jeremiah’s time were directly attributed to such oversight and hard-heartedness. That alone should give us a lot of reason to examine our private views and public policies.
But we also hear exhortations to be resolute and brave, despite the threat of persecution, preaching the Good News as Jesus did, and to act with compassion and generosity as so many of our citizens have wonderfully done over the past trying weeks.
For, as we hear, “this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” [Jeremiah 31:32-34]
Let us pray, then, to be transformed by the renewal of our minds, as we struggle to view our world not as the self-righteous see it, or generals or security analysts or weapons manufacturers or oil barons see it, but as God sees it. And it would be wise especially for us, as Americans — so rich, so powerful, so dangerous in the eyes of the wretched of the earth, to listen to their voices, to pay attention to the appeal of the pope for peace in the Middle East and Asia, to remember Jesus’ words to us today: “What profit would anyone show if they were to gain the whole world and ruin themselves in the process?”