YEAR C: SEASON OF PENTECOST
(Sunday between August 21 and August 27)
This week’s reading begins a series from the prophet Jeremiah which will dominate our trip through Israel’s prophets this Pentecost. By comparison with other prophetic books we seem to know a good deal about the prophet Jeremiah. There are sections of material in the book which appear to be biographical or autobiographical in nature. According to the information in the book, the prophet Jeremiah began his activity in 628 BCE, the 13th year of king Josiah. He saw out the reigns of five Judean kings, from Josiah to the end of Zedekiah (Jer 1:1-3). He was a priest from the town of Anathoth, of a Levitic family claiming descent from Moses. It was this family which Solomon rejected when he expelled Abiathar from the dual high priesthood which he inherited from his father David. Solomon retained only the Aaronide descendent, Zadok. According to the book, Jeremiah had a disciple Baruch who acted as scribe. The prose sections of the book have sometimes been attributed to Baruch. For other comments on this passage see Epiphany 4 earlier this year.
Today’s reading in vv. 4-10 of chapter 1 is an account of Jeremiah’s ‘call’ to be a prophet. This account is told in a formulaic way. It follows a pattern present also in the stories of the call of other servants of God. Compare, for example, the stories of the calls of Moses (Exod 3:1-12), or Gideon (Judg 6:11-18). Elements of this pattern include: the context of conversation, divine initiative (e.g. Jer 1:5), protest (v. 6), divine reassurance (vv. 7-8) and some act of commissioning and the message (vv. 9-10). The use of a widely accepted pattern carries its own message, quite apart from the particular content of each specific occurrence of it. The call is initiated by God or God’s word; it never comes by human initiative. Certainly there is a human story to tell in each case, and as the protest or resistance in the formula shows, the call is neither simple nor easy for the prophet concerned. In Jeremiah’s case it will involve suffering and strong opposition as we will see in coming weeks. The assurance that follows it (‘Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you’, v. 8) reveals both an understanding of human fear on the one hand, and a divine persistence in the call on the other. Finally, the use of the pattern to describe these different experiences of quite different characters, points to the community aspect of these ‘calls’. They may appear to us to be quite personal experiences, but until there is a ‘public’ description of a call in language that is publicly recognisable as just that, there is no call. Prophetic authority only exists when it is publicly acknowledged, when the power of God behind a word of judgment or hope within public life is recognised by the community of faith itself. Of course, there are often those who oppose the prophet’s word but it is the recognition of a community of faith that is paramount.
The content of Jeremiah’s message is wrapped up in six verbs (v. 10). The first four are negative: ‘pluck up’, ‘pull down’, ‘destroy’, and ‘overthrow’. The last two are positive: ‘build’ and ‘plant’. These same verbs are repeated elsewhere in Jeremiah (18:7; 24:6; 31:28; 42:10; 45:4). In a way these verbs in sequence describe the shape of the book of Jeremiah. From judgment against Judah and the nations it then moves to a message of hope and salvation. The shape of the book itself, as well as the words of the prophet, attest to both God’s judgment and dismantling of all that resists or opposes God’s life-giving ways, and to God’s desire and ability to bring new life to his people.
In this task the prophet himself will meet strong opposition to his calling. There will be vested interests which will resist plucking up and overthrowing, and others which will resist the building and planting. Jeremiah will need courage in the performance of his prophetic duty. He will be called on to speak to the leaders of the nation. He will encounter the strong criticism of other prophets (e.g. Jer 6:14) and leaders of the temple (7:1-5). His call will be costly. Yet as it unfolds the word he is to pass on, the word which fills his mouth, will prove the only hope for this people. He will be delivered, as is promised, and the people to whom he proclaims this word will finally be delivered. The word given to Jeremiah, the subject of all that follows, will be the word of God.
The Gospel reading set for today (Luke 13:10-17) sees Jesus teaching on the sabbath in a synagogue when a crippled woman enters. Jesus heals her but is immediately opposed by the leader of the synagogue who protests against doing such works on the sabbath. Jeremiah met strong opposition from other prophets and kings. The opposition Jesus encounters in this story shows just how subtle opposition to God’s word can become. The things being plucked up, pulled down, destroyed, and overthrown in Jesus’ act of healing the woman were not only the structures of religious authority, but the traditional teachings and understandings of the Torah about the sabbath, and the power, status and pride of all those present over this woman and those like her which was subtly exercised by keeping her in her place for eighteen years. What Jesus was building and planting was the life and faith of this woman, all who were like her, and all who had ears and eyes to hear and see the presence of the word of God.
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