Yesterday, one of the lectors for this coming Sunday mentioned to me that, in preparation for this week, she was looking ahead at the lesson from Jeremiah with dismay. She's right: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 is hard to hear. As Lora Walsh mentioned in her sermon this past Sunday, we're in the middle of a long stretch of readings from Jeremiah. She reminded us that Jeremiah is neither a gifted Hebrew poet nor a prophet who likes to focus on the plight of the poor or the oppressed.
This week, however, we get a more tender sliver of a long speech by God that the prophet records. Admittedly, I find this reading a little confusing. God offers expressions of longing and pity: "My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick" and "O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!" But we also get words of God's refusal to do anything about the plight of those whom God pities: "Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?" and "Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?" It almost feels like God laments the fact that God's people are being punished by God. In other words, it's a "This is going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you" kind of speech.
Why won't God make up God's mind and help God's people? Why does God care this much for Judah and yet is determined to destroy her?
Go back and read the rest of Jeremiah 8. Notice in particular how the chapter begins:
At that time, says the Lord, the bones of the kings of Judah, the bones of its officials, the bones of the priests, the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem shall be brought out of their tombs; and they shall be spread before the sun and the moon and all the host of heaven, which they have loved and served, which they have followed, and which they have inquired of and worshiped; and they shall not be gathered or buried; they shall be like dung on the surface of the ground.Later on, God directs his anger at the religious leaders of the people: "How can you say, 'We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us,' when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie? The wise shall be put to shame...They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace."
The reality that the prophet sets before us is a universal tragedy that has its roots in the faithlessness of the leaders. Even if Jeremiah doesn't like to single out the plight of the poor, notice that in chapter 8 he writes, "from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely." It is the unjust business practices, which exploit the economically vulnerable, that have become so pervasive that God does not know where to find even a little fruit on the vine. From the top all the way down, faithlessness has spread until the point where there is no hope for repentance. The "perpetual backsliding" mentioned in 8:5 means that even the dire call for repentance is being ignored.
God wants to save God's people. God wants to rescue them. And, in time, God will. But, at this point in Judah's history, things have gotten so bad that there are no holy, righteous leaders to help the people get back on track. Instead, destruction must come. I think there is power in God's empathetic words in Sunday's reading. This is a loving parent who has done everything possible to turn a broken child's life around but still cannot get through. The love does not stop. The tears do not stop. God even wishes that God had eyes to cry and cry some more.
What do we do when lust for money and power and unjust gain become so rampant and pervasive that there is no one left to call God's people to account? In God, there are always second, third, fourth, and infinite chances. God will not reject us for eternity. But, at some point, we've forgotten what it means to repent and there is no one left to remind us how. Then, God's love must follow us even into our own destruction. Then, our hope is found not in this world or this life but in the next. Who will speak God's tender brokenheartedness to the world?