This week’s lectionary readings feel preoccupied with the perception of justice. What does “justice” mean? Are we to judge? Especially in the reality of living between the two kingdoms of God’s grace and judgement, neither of which we fully understand, we have to acknowledge how deeply we are manipulated by our own just world belief.
First, let’s consider the backstory for the book of Jeremiah. Wikipedia tells us that Jeremiah lived in Jerusalem in the late 7th and 6th centuries BC, during the time of king Josiah and the fall of Judah to the Babylonians. If you think about a historical narrative for the children of Israel, well, they keep screwing themselves. God heard their groaning in Egypt, and led them into freedom. As generations pass, they forget their emancipation story, and their ambition and brokenness reveals their honest vulnerability. The Babylonians will indeed conquer and enslave them, and the cycle of oppression will yet again repeat itself. This reading feels grounded in a time of self-destructiveness and corruption.
Wikipedia goes on to explain the widespread theory that the book of Jeremiah was edited and influenced by the Deuteronomists, who pushed for religious reform. And, that Jeremiah himself was impetuous, and indignant about being thrust into the role of prophet. He was a performance artist, carrying a yoke about his neck to capture attention. When I extrapolate, this sounds like middle child syndrome. Jeremiah seeks attention, seeing himself as a victim who everyone ignores. In my mind, I’m picturing him with Jan Brady’s afro wig, dating her boyfriend that you wouldn’t know (because he’s Canadian).
This passage is more than a little self-righteous. “Bring down retribution for me on my persecutors” (15:15) ; pray for God to smite those who piss me off? “Know that on your account I suffer insult” (15:15); see what I have to deal with? “Your words were found, and I ate them” (15:16); see how good I am? “I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice” (15:17); see how superior I am? “Why is my pain unceasing” (15:18); see what a martyr I am? “Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook” (15:18); and see what thanks I get?
But when we get to verse 19, we hear something that sounds like God responding:
Therefore, thus says the Lord: If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them. Jeremiah 15:19.
Not that I’m even remotely a Biblical scholar, I think that once upon a time I had the impression that everything spoken by the prophets was from God. Directly from God. But now I’m in a mental place where I see the prophets as very much human, just as human as me, and not always wanting to be prophets on top of the rest of their lives. Actually, this reminds me of every time one of the desert fathers was “elected” to be a priest or a bishop. Verse 19 really sounds like a corrective for Jeremiah, and for us, really. I didn’t quote further because I find this one verse to be so striking. I hear God naming Jeremiah’s willfulness and his martyr complex. Regardless how understandable is Jeremiah’s behavior, it’s really gotten in the way of effective ministry.
In verse 19, I hear God calling out Jeremiah on his words and actions, especially when He says “if you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth.” Meaning, Jeremiah’s been speaking for himself more than for God. And, why do we ever want to reform anything? Because they’re wrong and we’re right. And so, later verses proclaim “and I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze” if Jeremiah really speaks on behalf of God, and not himself.
So, am I speaking on behalf of God, or just myself? It’s a murky discernment, because our thoughts and feelings are so pervasive and strong. I hear wisdom in this scripture, telling me that when I’m truly speaking on behalf of God, my brokenness is not impeding or clouding my message, and in turn I can be more effective (because I won’t be my own worst enemy). Let me be clear – I’m not being told how to do that, or even being told to do that. There’s no commandment here, just wisdom. If A, then B, else C. This, and the backstory of religous reform, inspires me to pray for God’s Church and its internal struggles:
God of Wisdom, bless Your Holy Church, that we all might minister to the world through seeking our common good Teach us to serve without self-righteousness, to give without seeking our own reward, and help us to allow Your Word to speak through us, freely and extravagantly to everyone around us.
Whoa! “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” (12:9) Be afraid, because this passage has gotten Christians and congregations into trouble for ages! Skipping ahead for now, most of the rest of this scripture is fairly innocuous. Bless those who persecute you, rejoice with those who rejoice, do not claim to be wiser than you are, live peaceably with all, and so forth. These are easy ethics to appreciate, regardless how possible it is for us broken people to embody them.
Returning to the opening verse, the entire verse reads:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Romans 12:9
How can I love through hating? What does “evil” mean? You know, it’s so important to remember that we believe we know what words mean, but it’s never the whole story. What does Webster say about hate? One definition reads “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.” I also see a reference to an origin from the Greek – “kedos“, meaning “care“. I have trouble comprehending “hostility” in the scope of the entire reading, because much of the reading seems to advise us how to respond to others’ hostility. Whereas “aversion” is easier to comprehend as a recommendation to retreat or turn away from evil. Likewise, I’m not sure how to express anger in the midst of my fear, but I can perceive evil as a scary and injurous entity. I also think of this phrase as opposites – if talking about clinging to good, then what would be the opposite? You either cling to or let go of, something.
So again, I think this passage is more about letting go, rather than some kind of outward hostility. Something of an indigtment of the mantra of “hate the sin, love the sinner.” Focus more on myself and what I embrace or attract, and less on somehow correcting someone else regarding my perception of their sinfulness.
And what does “evil” mean? Webster lists “the fact of suffering, misfortune, and wrongdoing“, and “something that brings sorrow, distress, or calamity.” Certainly, all things that I do not want. So, thanks to the dictionary, I feel like I can legitimately interpret this opening verse as more about letting go versus clinging. The wisdom of this scripture is that my life is much improved as I cling to what is good, which necessitates letting go of that which causes me to suffer. This feels more in-line with the long list of things that I’m advised to embrace.
But then we run into a later passage: “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Another trouble spot. I found myself reading Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology blog, where he exposits this verse. As I don’t believe in the notion of “God’s wrath”, I struggle to put meaning to this verse. I think psychologist Richard Beck’s reference to “just world belief” helps to summarize a common interpretation of this phrase – don’t you exact vengeance, let me do it instead. What I can take from this verse, and my limited understanding of God, is that because God’s thoughts and ways are not my thoughts and ways (thank you, Isaiah!), I’m fooling myself to presume that God would exact vengeance where I would. And whether or not God would exact vengeance – that’s God’s business, not mine.
So, I’m left with a sense of being advised to not seek vengeance from within my limited, subjective just world belief. Leave others to the consequences of their own wrongs – let them own their own outcome. This is remiscent of what it means to enable an alcoholic – don’t solve their problems. Let them experience the consequences of their own actions, good or bad. As Al-Anoners would say, “let go, and let God.” From this, I feel inspired to write a prayer for our leaders and government:
Lord of Justice, bless our government and leaders in all places. Grant them wisdom to make decisions that seek justice for our common good, that seek redemption and rehabilitation in the face of evil, crime, and injustice, for the safety and sake of the world and all of Your children at all levels of society.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ Matthew 16:21-23
Ah, after the other readings for the week, this really stands out as a rehashing. Jesus will suffer (wrongly), and Peter wants to exact his own sense of justice. Jesus gives us a little hint here – “on the third day be raised.” Jesus is referencing that God’s sense of justice will prevail as-is, regardless of what human hands may wreak. Jesus rebukes Peter pretty heavily here, because Peter really is being a stumbling block to the human Jesus, as the divine Jesus prepares for next steps. I think Peter is representing our nature to be judge and jury, and to want to exact our own sense of justice, not God’s.
Later, we get another statement of opposites too (like with clinging to versus letting go): “for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (16:25) It reminds me of a sermon from Nadia Bolz-Weber (Sarcastic Lutheran – you can google it). “Would you rather be right or happy?” If God in Christ exceeds my expectations and my understanding, then what price am I willing to pay to prove I’m right, assuming I can remember that I may not be right? It may seem like I’m losing my life to give up my fight, but in the end, the serenity I could feel by not fighting will gain my life back.
I wanted to write a prayer for the local community, but was stumped on my initial reading of “letting go, and letting God.” But then, it occured to me that another legitimate reading is to not stand in the way of what God is doing in our midst. We may try to manufacture whatever might be our sense of a perfect or popular ministry, but everyone’s got a different concept of what that means, and sometimes that may actually not be what we’re called to do in a particular time or place. And in another time or place, perhaps so.
Spirit of Mystery, You flow through every time and place, blessing and empowering Your faithful followers to proclaim and celebrate Christ. Grant us patience and open minds, to see and rejoice in the wonders that You might be working in our very midst, in every moment of our shared life through Christ Church.
And so, when you read your newspaper this week, perhaps you might take a moment to wonder how God might be working in the midst of all things, from stories of calamity to stories of celebration. The hint is that it might be how you least expect.