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(Sunday between September 18 and September 24)
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

This short reading builds on the Jeremiah readings of recent weeks with their movement towards the total destruction of Israel, the people of God. Here, however, the mood shifts to one of unrelenting and inconsolable grief over this move. The reading today should be connected to the material which precedes it, at least Jer 8:13-17, in order to give it some context. Some scholars would also take the reading to Jer 9:3. (Note that the English verse 9:1 appears as 8:23 in the Hebrew text.)

Jer 8:13-17 is bound by two vivid images. One (v. 13) is of the bitter disappointment and dismay of a land owner who comes at the harvest to gather grapes or figs only to discover there is no fruit. We might compare the bitter disappointment over another vineyard in the recent reading of Isa 5:1-7. The other (v. 17) portrays great anger unleashed in the form of snakes let loose among the people; snakes which cannot be distracted from their deadly business (cf. Ps 58:3-5). Unlike the story of the snakes in the wilderness (Num 21:4-9) there is now no one to intercede for the people and God will not repent. Between these verses the cause of the divine distress and anger, as well as the nature of the punishment, are made clear. Even though the people acknowledge their sin, their only response is resignation (v. 14). They want peace and healing but stand paralysed, unable to heed the call to repent (cf. 18:11) while punishment looms on the horizon (8:15). The whole land quakes as the Babylonians advance on Jerusalem; the sound of their horses is heard far away at the border of the land.

As today’s passage starts (v. 18) we see that Jeremiah is no dispassionate observer of these events. His heart is sick, he is overwhelmed with grief. He shares the pain of the people (v. 21). But while he shares their pain and is dismayed at what is happening to them, what he feels goes far deeper and is far more profound. He feels more than fear at the snorting of the Babylonian horses. His dismay goes beyond the naïve dismay of the people in vv. 19-20. What is happening to them is a crisis of faith. They are amazed at God’s absence: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?’ They cite the old proverb (v. 20) about the harvest being over. One expects at the end of summer to have barns and bins full of summer produce to feed the community the rest of the year. But no! What they have sought, what they expected, namely the Lord’s protection and deliverance, have not come. Is not the Lord supposed to save them, his people, who even acknowledge their sin (v. 14)?

These people seek a dispassionate God, who saves and responds to his people’s need in almost robotic, slave-like fashion. But that is not the God who speaks through Jeremiah. In the midst of describing their dismay the prophet echoes the words of the Lord about how this people provokes the Lord. In further poetic imagery Jeremiah speaks of them as ‘all adulterers, a band of traitors’ who ‘bend their tongues like bows’ and ‘who have grown strong in the land of falsehood, and not for truth’ (9:2b-3). Their piety and their theology do not reflect the ways of the Lord. They really know nothing of this Lord they call on, who is indeed still with them.

The prophet finds himself torn between his love for his people and his loyalty to the Lord. In 9:1 he laments that he cannot physically weep enough for his suffering people. Yet with almost the same breath (v. 2a) he wants to be rid of them and their evil ways. Picking up the harvest image again he asks whether there can be any relief or healing for them, even from the abundant grasslands of Gilead, the most fertile part of the land (v. 22). He knows the answer too well.

Such is the anguish of the prophet, and some commentators would see it in only those terms. But more can be said. The Lord has been speaking through the prophet up to v. 17. The Lord also speaks in 9:2b-3. But there is a strong connection between 9:1 and 2 (the speaker ‘I’ is the same) and the Lord’s speech in vv. 2b-3 which is seen as the reason for the desire to escape in v. 2a. The prophet might start to express his own anguish from 8:18 on, but with the connections through 9:1-3 and with the citation of the Lord in 8:19b, I find it hard to distinguish the prophet’s speech from that of the Lord. The God whom the people expect to save them, is, like his prophet, far from dispassionate and undisturbed in this terrible situation. In their piety and theology they expect God to save them when they are in trouble. By their actions they expect God to forget about their progress from ‘evil to evil’. Neither expectation is filled. They get a God whose passion for saving his people is matched by his passionate feelings about ‘adulterous’ behaviour, treachery, and truth. It is not only Jeremiah’s joy which is gone, whose heart is sick, and who hurts at the hurt of his people. God feels all that and more. This same God feels he cannot weep enough for the people, but at the same time wants to be as far away from them as possible (cf. the image of the Lord in Hosea 11:1-11). Such is the passion of a God who both loves the people, but at the same time seeks the way of truth. These people do not really know this God who is in their midst, despite their questioning.

In a world reeling from both the horrors of terror attacks, civil war in countries as well as the unimaginable mass movements of people in order to flee from violence, the church is called to feel, to embody and to proclaim the passion of a God who hurts with the world’s hurt and who longs for the peace and healing we cry out for more deeply than we can imagine. It is also called to know and proclaim that equal passion for truth and justice in the world that resides in God’s heart. The Church needs to embrace both God’s compassion for the world and God’s judgment on ‘those who grow strong in the land of falsehood’ both in its own life and in its word to the world.

Psalm 79

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