What It Takes to Become a Prophet: Reflections on Jeremiah 8:18 -- 9:1

Lectionary Reflections
Jeremiah 8:18—9:1
September 22, 2013

More than a few of the students I have had in my classes over thirty-six years of higher education (I admit to being confused at times just what this education was "higher" than) have rushed off to their various places of ministry, determined to be prophets for their time. They have armed themselves with the truth of the gospel, they have girded their loins like a warrior, preparing themselves to suffer the arrows of rejection, the slings of anger, the rocket launchers of abuse that their unyielding prophetic stances will arouse. More often than not, they have blindly made a mess of things in their attempts to fight the good fight, to speak truth to power, to present the unvarnished certainty of God and Jesus to people whom they know have never heard it, but, by God, will hear it now for their betterment. And, on occasion, the very anger they engender is proof positive that they are doing the right thing. If no one likes them, it must be because they are doing something right.

They would do well to listen to our passage for today. I have long found this remarkable section to be the antidote to a would-be prophet of God who has gotten too caught up in his or her own righteousness. Jeremiah provides us the answer to the question: "What gives me the right to speak like a prophet?"

As we approach Jeremiah 8, we have listened to the prophet attack, abuse, and generally excoriate his own people for their lack of attention to YHWH's demands for justice and righteousness, their complete lack of the knowledge of what YHWH wants from them, and their continuous attraction to other gods and their idols of one sort or another. In short, Jeremiah up until chapter 8 sounds a good deal like his prophetic forebear, Amos, who majored in verbal assault against the sins of Israel. But now Jeremiah and Amos part company.

"My joy is gone; grief lies on me; my heart is ill" (Jer. 8:18). Jeremiah's prophetic charge, to "pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow" (Jer. 1:10) gives him no pleasure. Quite the opposite is true; he is joyless, grief-stricken, and sick at heart. His God-given task to announce the anger of God and to urge his people to complete change of heart and life is not a task that he finds fun. A prophet, he implies with this confession, should not take pleasure in excoriating his people.

This fact does not mean that the prophet should cease telling the truth as she sees it from God. But all truth telling is contexted by a careful listening to the pain of those very people. "Look! The sound of the cry of my poor people from every corner of the land: Is YHWH not in Zion? Is its king not in the city?" (Jer. 8:19) The people of Jerusalem have been taught from their youth that the holy city is the place where YHWH is surely to be found. Yet, as the city is first threatened and partially destroyed by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 597 B.C.E., and then finally obliterated by that same king in 587 B.C.E., the Jerusalemites cry out in horror and wonder concerning the presence, or absence, of this YHWH in their city. If Jerusalem is YHWH's city, then where is YHWH? This is a reasonable and heart-felt question, and Jeremiah hears it with real sensitivity.

We modern day would-be prophets would do well to listen carefully to the cries of our people. We may demand from them God's justice, but in a highly complex and competitive world, the doing of justice may not be so clear-cut. When the people of our flock feel the pressing demands of a capitalist world to work hard and to achieve success; when the women are urged to "have it all," to achieve great success in business and equal success as spouse and mother, while the men are to "be men" and to be relational and giving, yet powerful and winners, the cries of the people may ring loud in the land.

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.