Opening The Old Testament
What It Takes to Become a Prophet: Reflections on Jeremiah 8:18 -- 9:1
And so the people of Jerusalem continue their anguished cry: "The harvest is past, the fruit season has ended, but we are not saved" (Jer. 8:20). We have done what we have been trained and told to do. We have collected the bounty of the harvest; the season has ended and we have had a bountiful collection that should last us through the winter. Metaphorically, they have done what it is necessary to do to ensure their survival, even their prospering, but it has not saved them from the terrors of their time. The Babylonians threaten, and nothing they have done has prevented that threat.
What is a prophet to do when the expectations of her people have been dashed, when their appropriate activities have not yielded the expected successes? When her people have worked faithfully and fairly and have yet received tragedy and fear rather than comfort and success, what is she to say? "For the shattering of my poor people I am shattered. I mourn, and shock has seized me" (Jer. 8:21). Until I have identified with the people to whom I speak, identified with their pain and their disappointment and their frustration, I finally have no right to say anything to them at all. Then, in deep dismay, Jeremiah himself cries out in horror in the face of the lack of help: "Is there no ointment in Gilead; can no physician be found there?" (Jer. 8:22). When we know that in the 6th century B.C.E. Gilead was specifically known as a place of healing and medical care, we understand the anguish of Jeremiah who laments the lack of help in the very place where help is to be expected. If there are no physicians in Gilead, if YHWH does not appear to be in the midst of YHWH's own holy city, hopelessness seems the obvious result.
"Oh, why has the health of my poor people not been restored," the prophet laments. Finally, Jeremiah wrings a cry from the very depths of his own life: "If only my head were waters, my eyes a fountain of tears that I might weep day and night for the dead of my poor people!" (Jer. 8:23 in Hebrew, 9:1 in English). The ability to utter that phrase with genuine conviction is the way that one gains the right to speak a prophetic word to his people. Until I can fully identify with their pain and suffering, until I can raise with them the questions of why things have not turned out as we all have hoped, until I can respond to their anguish with my own genuine tears of compassion, I can simply never be a prophet to them. I simply can never speak a hard word of God's truth until I have earned the right to do so as Jeremiah earned that right.
The gospel of God always contains two facets: gift and demand. Until I have received the gift of God's unbreakable love, until I have listened closely to the cries of pain of my people, until I have expressed openly and honestly my own fears and pains and frustrations about life's deepest mysteries, I have no right to speak the gospel's hard demands for justice and righteousness. Those who pastor people week in and week out must be prophets. But they cannot be prophets until they have earned that right; Jeremiah makes that crystal clear. Listen to him!
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.