A Prophet's Arduous Life
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: JEREMIAH 31: 31-34
FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
The days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel
and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers
the day I took them by the hand
to lead them forth from the land of Egypt;
for they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
how to know the LORD.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.
Father Lawrence Boadt’s Old Testament commentary (see home page) devotes Chapter 18 to the Prophet Jeremiah exclusively, and why not? Jeremiah’s ministry begins in 627 B.C. and extends to 582 B.C. Boadt comments that Jeremiah holds the record for length of prophetic activity at 45 years. His tenure begins with the reforms of the Israelite king Josiah and continues through the failures of their successors, the final collapse of the kingdom, and the Babylonian Exile. Boadt comments that “this work reveals more of the individual than any other Old Testament book…a person in ancient dress with whom modern readers can readily identify.” (p. 315)
For much of his life Jeremiah focused upon two themes: the evil of idolatry and injustice. He was relentless in his call for reform, which brought him suffering and persecution throughout his ministry. At the same time, he was a man of deep compassion who loved his people and worked tirelessly to save them from the judgment their infidelity would provoke from God. Boadt quotes the twentieth century Jewish Scripture scholar Abraham Heschel, as describing Jeremiah as “the prophet of God’s pathos—the divine sympathy.” (Boadt, 321) As Israel’s moral ethos deteriorated, Jeremiah despaired that anything he could say would avert the inevitable destruction that was now a virtual certainty. In a few instances he states that God has ordered him not to intercede on behalf of the people any longer, as in Jeremiah 7:16.
Those of us catechized in Western Christian civilization are used to hearing our doctrines and directives in propositional and left-brained style; no one has ever confused the Catholic Catechism with Maya Angelu for the Nobel Prize in Literature. [Note the prominence of “talking head” liturgies in the U.S.] Prophetic literature is a product of the Middle East, where song, poetry, parable, sermon, and metaphor convey religious truth. Jeremiah spoke in parable and visionary tones, and while his message remains consistent, the artistry of his figures of speech and the music of his verse moved his hearers and disciples. It is sad to say that in reading Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the other classical prophets, we do not have access to the sensory experiences that prophetic preaching entailed.
Nor is it easy for us to enter the context of the preaching event, and Jeremiah’s preaching was no exception. When the Babylonian Captivity took full force, Jeremiah urged his brethren to accept their lot with resignation, as the just punishment for their sins. He also counseled against listening to false prophets who foretold a brief sojourn in Babylon. This probably cost him many followers and friendships. The Book of Lamentations, once believed to be authored by Jeremiah, certainly captures the grief of the prolonged captivity in a foreign land and the barrenness of a stripped Jerusalem.
It is likely that Sunday’s reading, the oracle of a new covenant, was addressed to the captives at some point late in Jeremiah’s life. The literary style is apocalyptic—forward looking and full of promise. At first glance the text does not differ greatly from other renewals of God’s covenant, but again the context is the missing yeast. The listener would have to concede that the recent memory of Israel’s history—from King Josiah’s reform to its inexorable deterioration of faith—was indeed a breaking of the covenant. Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant with both the houses of Israel and Judah, signifying that the current split of the promised land into a northern and a southern kingdom would be healed.
Jeremiah, assuming the voice of God, explains the need for punishment; “I had to show myself their master…” But with hearts purified by trial, the new promise will be “written in their hearts.” Curiously, the prophesy goes on to says that “no longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives” of the covenant, suggesting a very personal degree of communication with God. It is a different emphasis from addresses to “my people” and may suggest the first strong indication of the importance of personal fidelity. It reflects prophetic identity, in which one man with a conscience steps forward to say and do what is right by the Law.
Sunday’s reading is paired with St. John 12, and one can read in Jesus’ description of himself his sense of prophetic identity. Chapter 12 describes a voice from heaven, similar in effect to the baptismal scenes of Jesus in the other Gospels where the Spirit of God is poured forth upon him. This is the same idiom used to describe Old Testament prophets, as receiving the Spirit of God. Jesus knew the histories of Isaiah and Jeremiah quite well, and the Gospel concludes with Jesus’ full embrace of the prophetic destiny: “‘And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.’
He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.”
For those wondering if there are available commentaries on Jeremiah, the answer is, uh, yes.
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