YEAR C: EPIPHANY 6
February 11, 2007
This is the third Jeremiah reading from Jeremiah so far in Year C and there will be nine others during Pentecost. Jeremiah 17 is among Jeremiah’s oracles of judgment against Judah. It probably comes from a time between the failure of the religious reforms under king Josiah (see 2 Kings 22-23) and the attacks on Jerusalem by Babylon, the beginning of the exile. Jeremiah had seemingly supported Josiah’s reforms, remaining silent through most of that king’s reign. But now he has to deal with the apparent failure of Josiah’s reforms. Judgment has come after all. In such a context can we any longer speak of God’s blessing?
The chapter is a mix of seemingly unrelated oracles. The earlier oracles in the chapter have in common an emphasis on the Lord’s concern with the sinfulness of the people. The latter part returns to the matter of Sabbath observance.
Verses 5-10 constitute a judgment oracle. The specific context of the oracle is not stated within the verses and must be gleaned from the wider references in the book. Like some wisdom literature, the verses reflect profoundly on two opposite ways of living (vv. 5-8), and on the ambivalence of human nature and how God responds to it (vv. 9-10). What binds them together is the matter of trust and in whom one places trust.
The vivid illustrations drawn from nature clearly contrast the effects of two life styles. Those who turn from the Lord and trust in mere humans (v. 5) become stunted, hopeless, barren and lonely (v. 6). Those who trust in the Lord (v. 7) are well nourished, fruitful and able to withstand adversity (v. 8). For the writer, trust in Yahweh determines whether one succeeds in life or not. Blessing in many Old Testament passages means fruitfulness (cf. Gen. 1:22; 49:25), renown and posterity (Gen. 12:2), and material prosperity (Gen. 24:7). Without denying a material element, it is noticeable that Jeremiah 17 is also concerned with the less tangible aspects of blessing, implying the gift of strength even in the midst of physical adversity. This is a holistic conception of blessing, more robust than either a somewhat spiritualised conception or a thoroughly materialistic one. It is akin to the association of blessing and curse we find in Deuteronomy where these things represent matters of life or death themselves (cf. Deut. 30:1, 15-20).
In v. 8 there is an allusion to the imagery of the two trees in Psalm 1, the psalm set for the day, although the psalm makes similar but different statements. A comparison between the two texts shows that the Jeremiah text is in some ways rather more challenging than the psalm. First, the prophet casts the statement as a word from the Lord and makes it a first person statement (Jer. 17:10), whereas the Psalm speaks of the Lord’s knowledge only in the third person (Ps. 1:6). Blessing and curse are not just longer abstract entities but the direct outcome of the God’s action. Secondly, the prophet begins with a word of curse (Jer. 17:5) rather than blessing as in the psalm, which suggests that the prophet is opposed to his audience, considering them wicked and wanting to confront them directly with judgment. In the psalm the concern is more for how the faithful can remain that way. Thirdly, the prophet’s curse is not just on those associated with the wicked (as in Psalm 1) but may apply to seemingly good people who trust in others but not in God. The text allows that trust in God need not exclude trust in others. Jeremiah’s reference to ‘trust in mere mortals’ (v. 5) may be to Judah’s ill-fated political alliances. This was precisely the issue raised in the book of Isaiah around last week’s reading (see Epiphany 5 comment). Also the image of life in a barren and lonely wilderness (v. 6) may have been suggested by the prophet’s experience of the desolation of land by foreign armies. In any case, the prophet is raising the question of personal motivation when it comes to receiving God’s blessing, something at best presumed in the psalm. In Psalm 1 we were told that God’s blessing was on the one whose delight was in the torah, ‘law’ of the Lord, and who meditated on it day and night (Ps. 1:2). Such deep displays of piety can, in themselves, be deceptive. The prophet probes what the psalmist assumes, speaking about trust, which comes from deep within one and grows only within a mature and tested relationship. In this case, trust in God.
The theme of blessing and curse is picked up in the Gospel for the day, Luke 6:17-26, the sermon on the plain with Luke’s version of the beatitudes. In Matthew’s beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12) there is blessing on those who are poor in spirit, mourn, are meek, hunger for righteousness etc. In Luke’s version the writer juxtaposes a set of blessings (Luke 6:20b-23) with a set of curses (‘woe’; vv. 24-26) and giving a much more ‘material’ touch to the references to poverty, hunger and weeping etc. For Luke, as for Jeremiah, the relationship of trust that is the foundation for all blessing is exercised in the daily activities and interests of life. In Luke the beatitudes stand between the healing of lives that was experienced by ‘touching’ Jesus (6:19) and Jesus’ injunctions to love one’s enemies (6:27-36) in very practical, if difficult, ways. In Jeremiah, the real world of political allegiances was where there were clear indicators of essential trust in God or otherwise and the foundation of blessing or curse.
The preacher has a number of challenges in this week’s reading from Jeremiah. To what extent can we hold material and other less tangible aspects of God’s blessing together in our lives? What is a holistic approach to God’s blessing if it cannot be reduced to either just material benefit or just spiritual wellbeing? Related to this is the nature of trust in God in our world. Within our highly secularised life style today, and with all the media hype around military might, national and community security, the so-called war on terrorism, globalisation etc., what does it mean, in a material and spiritual way, to trust in God?
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