For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 7 – Jeremiah 23:1-6
The prophet Jeremiah was ministering at the start of Judah’s exile to Babylon, just after 600 BC. The nation had watched as Jerusalem was besieged and eventually destroyed, with the Temple and the royal palace smashed to the ground, the King and his family deported, many of the ruling classes killed, and many of the poor of the land dispossessed. No wonder he has a reputation for being a bit of a misery. Like everyone around at the time, Jeremiah is trying to make sense of the shock and trauma experienced by the nation, and to answer the inevitable questions ‘Who is to blame for this?’ and ‘What will become of us?’ These two questions, by the way, are being asked today as I write the day after England lost to Italy in the Euro cup final, and the discourse consists of both intelligent analysis of strategy and downright racist abuse. Trauma invites the former, but often sadly brings forth the latter.
So who does Jeremiah blame? In fact he answers that question in two different ways. First of all he blames the ‘shepherds’ a well known metaphor for the Kings. In this attack on the rulers Jeremiah continues here what he started in the previous chapter, where past Kings are denounced for a variety of crimes: failing to care for their subjects, feathering their own nests at the expense of the poor, cruelty to foreigners, and general godless corruption. Far be it from me, of course, to draw any parallels with any other period of history, but Jeremiah seems to believe that when a nation’s leaders become selfish and corrupt, the whole nation suffers. In Jeremiah’s world the people have been scattered and lost directly because of the lack of attention by those whose role is to care for and protect them.
Bu then things get interesting. It isn’t just because of the leaders that the people are in such a mess. It is because of God himself. In v.2 it is the shepherds who have scattered the flock, but in v.3 it is God who has driven them away. What on earth are we to make of that? Is God no better a leader than the corrupt politicians?
There are at least three ways in which we might make sense of these verses. It may be that whilst the leaders failed to do their jobs properly the people were not just innocent victims. They could have refused to be a part of the evil behaviour of the nation as a whole; they could have refused to join in with the idolatrous worship and immoral living of the nation. So while the leaders get particular stick from the prophet, the people deserve God’s punishment too. I think there is a lot of truth in this: the school child’s ‘He made me do it, Miss!’ argument doesn’t really work. The people needed a good scattering every bit as much as the Kings did.
Another interpretation might be tied in to Jesus’ words to his disciples that whatever they bound or loosed on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven. In other words, humans do have real power for good or ill, and when they lead a nation into corruption the whole nation suffers the consequences. As individualist children of the Enlightenment we struggle with this idea, but in the real world that is just how it works. A politician makes a bad decision, and the whole nation suffers. God has to punish everyone because that’s how the universe works, whether we like it or not.
But maybe something else is being said here. Maybe God’s scattering of the people is meant to remind us that whatever humans do, God will always have the last word. And that is exactly what Jeremiah is going on to say in the remainder of the passage. You think it was your bent politicians who got you into this mess, but not one of them takes a single breath without my say-so. I have allowed this punishment to come to you, but hear me out, and you’ll see the end of the story, where all this is heading. God promises a new king who will do the job properly, who will undo all the harm done by the current wicked bunch, and cause the nation to live in fearless peace.
The nation never did, in fact, get such a monarch on the throne, but those who see these words fulfilled in Jesus, who will one day reign in equity, wiping every tear from every eye, will have a whole new angle from which to see the evil and corruption under which the world currently lives, and a whole new hope to sustain them to live lives in the direction of godliness, shing like stars in a corrupt generation.
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