Who was the prophet Jeremiah?
We hear him speaking to us in our first reading about how he finds it difficult to speak the truth: “All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I must cry out, violence and outrage is my message; the word of the LORD has brought me derision and reproach all the day.”
Jeremiah the prophet lived between 650BC and 570BC. He is quite probably one of the most difficult and contrary men ever to live. He had a prolific, sustained and prodigious ability to annoy all those around him and make enemies with an alarming alacrity and speed. To put it in North London terms, he was the dinner party guest from hell – always bringing up difficult subjects and criticizing those around him. Much of his prophecy is lamentation and complaint, gloom and warning, reproach and regret.
He lived through one of the most turbulent periods of Israelite history. He predicted that if God’s people didn’t turn away from their idolatry and wicked ways God would punish them with famine and war. And God did just that when Jerusalem was overrun by the Babylonians, and its king and ruling classes were taken off into exile.
Jeremiah clearly felt called to be a messenger for God from an early age. But he seems to have got nothing but grief as a result. We know those whom he criticized often tried to get rid of him. The bible records at least two plots to kill him. He was put in the stocks, thrown down wells and had a finely honed ability to court controversy and high drama wherever he went.
So why is he given to us today as our first reading? Why are we encouraged to read our gospel passage side by said with a portion of Jeremiah’s writings?
Above all else we learn an important thing from the life of Jeremiah: being faithful to God’s calling, and proclaiming his message is costly and difficult. Speaking the truth can result in you being ostracized, punished, ridiculed, sidelined. And yet, it must be done.
So when those who first knew Jesus heard him talk about taking up our cross to follow him and about his being handed over to the scribes and Pharisees, they will have understood those words in a very particular way.
They would have heard Jesus’ teaching in the context of the whole prophetic tradition of Israel. If someone has a prophetic message from God you would expect them to experience trouble. In fact, to be handed over to scribes and Pharisees, to be killed for what you claim to be, would be a sure sign of authenticity. A persecuted prophet is a true prophet.
We see Jesus here saying he will experience the same fate as all those prophets who through history have had a difficult message to deliver from God. And that’s where our readings today touch our lives. For if it was the case for Jeremiah; and if it was the case for Jesus; we can be sure it will be the same for us.
It is unlikely that any of us will have to suffer persecution in the sense of being arrested for our faith. But we all of us know what it feels like when someone belittles or ridicules us for being Christian in a society which can be very secular and illiberal in its attitude to faith. We all know how difficult it can be to hear conversations where the Gospel is misrepresented or the Church is unfairly criticized. We all of us understand what it feels like to hear political discourse in which the Gospel imperatives of God’s concern for the flourishing of all human life seems to be forgotten and the precious dignity of human life seems to be endangered.
Jesus tells us today that if we are to share in the prophetic ministry Jesus confers on us through our baptism, we should expect there to be times when our perspectives, our priorities, our need to speak out, or to support the outsider will put us at odds with those around us.
At the heart of the mystery of the cross we see a strange thing: it is through Christ’s isolation and pain and rejection that God’s love is truly shown. The really tricky and difficult and perplexing reality we are called to embrace this morning is this: sometimes we are called to share in that for the sake of the Gospel. We may be ridiculed, or shunned or seen to be out of touch, but through our witness to Christ, a greater reality is revealed. The eternal, unchanging, irrevocable love that God has for you and for me.
Fr Peter Anthony