20th Sunday Ordinary Time – Visions of Justice and Faith in God’s Covenant

The Prophet Jeremiah, Michelangelo, circa 1508–1512, Sistene Chapel (Wikipedia)

Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
Aug. 18, 2019

We read this Sunday from the Book of Jeremiah. He is called the weeping prophet of the Old Testament because he lived to see the city of Jerusalem destroyed. He might also be called its Cassandra as well. It was her curse to see the future of Troy and speak the truth, but never be believed. So it was with Jeremiah.

Several months ago, we read of his calling:

The words of Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah, of a priestly family in Anathoth, in the land of Benjamin. The word of the LORD first came to him in the days of Josiah, son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign, and continued through the reign of Jehoiakim, son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the downfall and exile of Jerusalem in the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, son of Josiah, king of Judah.
(Jeremiah 1:1–3)

He knew from the beginning that he will prophesy for many years and many circumstances and never be heeded and almost as tragically he knows why the end will come. In his temple sermon, he warns the people:

Put not your trust in the deceitful words: “This is the temple of the LORD! The temple of the LORD! The temple of the LORD!”
Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with his neighbor;
if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place, or follow strange gods to your own harm,
will I remain with you in this place, in the land which I gave your fathers long ago and forever.
Je. 7:4–7).

Offering sacrifice is not enough, they must also act justly if they are to be protected by God. Like all true prophets, there is a strong dimension of social justice to his teaching and it is this that will ultimately and decisively be rejected.

By the time we have arrived at today’s reading, the death spiral has begun. King Zedekiah, a weak and vacillating leader, is persuaded to break his covenant with King Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Chaldeans/Babylonians, and form an alliance with the Egyptians. This would seal the fate of Jerusalem. Yet it did not mean that everyone would be killed.

Jeremiah tells Zedekiah:

Thus says the LORD: I am handing this city over to the king of Babylon; he will destroy it with fire.
Neither shall you escape his hand; rather you will be captured and fall into his hands. You shall see the king of Babylon and speak to him face to face. Then you shall be taken to Babylon.
But if you obey the word of the LORD, Zedekiah, king of Judah, then, says the LORD to you, you shall not die by the sword.
(Je. 34:2–4)

This occurred during a sabbatical year when Jews were freed their Hebrew slaves. Zedekiah had issued an order of emancipation so that “no one should hold a man of Judah, his brother, in slavery.” (Je. 34:9)

Jerusalem was under siege by the King’s army and the people were scared. The Pharaoh of Egypt however had sent an army to break the siege. The Jewish leaders believed that this meant that they were saved and they “took back their male and female slaves whom they had set free and again forced them into service.” (Je. 34:11).

God’s reaction was swift:

Therefore, thus says the LORD: You did not obey me by proclaiming your neighbors and kinsmen free. I now proclaim you free, says the LORD, for the sword, famine, and pestilence. I will make you an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.
(Je. 34:16–17)

God tells Jeremiah:

Give this answer to the king of Judah who sent you to me to consult me: Pharaoh’s army which has set out to help you will return to its own land, Egypt.
The Chaldeans shall return to the fight against this city; they shall capture it and destroy it with fire.
(Je. 37:7–8).

While the siege had been temporarily lifted, Jeremiah left the city to attend to his property in the “suburbs.” The guards think that he is defecting to the enemy and arrest him. He is put in prison but nonetheless:

King Zedekiah had him brought to his palace and he asked him secretly whether there was any message from the LORD. Yes! Jeremiah answered: you shall be handed over to the king of Babylon.
(Je. 37:17)

In today’s reading, Jeremiah is still in prison but the siege has been resumed and the advisors of Zedekiah wish to use him as a scapegoat. The very weak Zedekiah consents but as we see almost immediately changes his mind again. Note two things: (i) neither the king nor the people pay much attention to Jeremiah although the king keeps asking him for an oracle, but they will not directly kill him as they do not want his blood on their hands and (ii) the person who saves him is a resident alien.

If we continue further however the picture becomes clearer but darker. The King calls Jeremiah again:

Thereupon Jeremiah said to Zedekiah: Thus says the LORD God of hosts, the God of Israel: If you surrender to the princes of Babylon’s king, you shall save your life; this city shall not be destroyed with fire, and you and your family shall live.
But if you do not surrender to the princes of Babylon’s king, this city shall fall into the hands of the Chaldeans, who shall destroy it with fire, and you shall not escape their hands.
(Je. 38:17–18).

The King bluntly tells Jeremiah that he is afraid to do this. He does however allow the prophet to be put in a more humane prison. The chapter ends ominously: “Thus Jeremiah stayed in the quarters of the guard till the day Jerusalem was taken.” (Je. 38:28)

King Zedekiah has committed one the most heinous crimes of his day: he broke covenants both with the Babylonians and more importantly with God. King Nebuchadnezzar’s army will kill his children in front of him and then blind him in punishment. This may in fact have been part of the covenant arrangement and been expected. There were always curses and harsh penalties for breaking the covenant.

The Lord, as we have seen, allowed the city to be destroyed. Again, note that this would have been understandable to an ancient audience: covenants could not be broken without consequence. Now look at Jeremiah. In his temple sermon we read before, Jeremiah tells the people not to oppress the resident alien and as we have seen it is a resident alien, Ebed-Melech the Cushite (African), who protects him. He has been faithful. His greatest reward, however, was a vision from God that the city would be restored to the Jews. He relays an oracle from God to the exiles:

Promote the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the LORD, for upon its welfare depends your own.
Thus says the LORD: Only after seventy years have elapsed for Babylon will I visit you and fulfill for you my promise to bring you back to this place
(Je. 29:7–10)

Unlike Cassandra whose curse was total—she saw that there was no future for her people with no possible alteration or redemption—Jeremiah was granted the vision of what and why. The people would eventually return, but only when they were purged. They were punished because they believed that, as God’s people, they would ultimately be invulnerable. He taught them that election demanded excellence which included not only proper worship, but the justice spoken of by all the prophets.

I never noticed previously that that the first group mentioned in Jeremiah’s temple sermon was the resident alien and in Deuteronomy the resident alien is the one group that God specifically tells the Jews why they should extend special care.

You shall also love the resident alien, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
(Dt. 10:19)

Given the circumstances on our own boarders, it is clear why it is now so visible. We are a nation of immigrants—strangers in a strange land—and this message leaps up and grabs us after millennia.

Many in our community have responded positively to this crisis in many and various ways. Given our interest in the issue, the Catholic Migration Office of Brooklyn will send a speaker in the early fall to update us on its continuing efforts and how we can help.

Reading Jeremiah closely will assist us in helping not as mere philanthropists, but as members of the covenant who know both the rewards for faithfulness and the punishments for betrayal.