Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages
This passage begins a section of Jeremiah’s prophecy which contains a series of laments. Jeremiah’s image is as a bit of a misery, living as he did during a time when the national life of Israel was unravelling, and which culminated in the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the invading Babylonians. Clearly he is deeply distressed about what he can see happening around him, and about what he sees as the inevitable destruction to come. But in this section we get a glimpse of a deeper sorrow: that of misunderstanding, betrayal and violence. This is a classic case of ‘Shoot the messenger’. It has been said that the foremost task of a leader is to define reality: sadly many people have no interest in reality and become deeply hostile towards those who try to make them see what is going on and where things are headed. Jeremiah seems to feel that this betrayal is even worse because it comes from the people among whom he lives, the men of Anathoth. They ought to be his friends, but they have chosen to make an enemy of him.
God has somehow revealed to the prophet the plans of those who oppose him, and his punishment is clearly because of his godly calling and life. the unusual reference to the tree in v 19 may be an ironic reference to Psalm 1, where those who remain faithful to God, as Jeremiah clearly does, are likened to a flourishing tree. ‘Well, let’s chop that tree down!’ say his opponents. Jeremiah’s response is a cry both for vengeance and vindication, and God’s response, immediately after our set section, is a promise of vengeance with a vengeance.
Many church leaders will know this kind of opposition from those among whom God has called them to serve, and the severe pain of violent opposition from the very people who ought to be alongside him. Many will know the almost equally painful experience of passive-aggressive behaviour among other church members. We know from other passages (for example 20:7) that Jeremiah felt that God was as much to blame as his earthly enemies for his distress. And of course today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus himself was the victim of misunderstanding, hostility, and his Father’s will.
So what of the cry for vengeance? And of God’s promise to do exactly that? How does that square with the NT calls for us to turn the other cheek and forgive our enemies? Clearly God thinks it is an appropriate cry, since he agrees to do what the prophet begs him to do. The first thing to note is that Jeremiah’s cry is real. I’m never quite convinced by nice Christians who have been through hell but blithely say ‘But I forgave them!’ Some experiences are so damaging that the pain goes on for years afterwards, and it is only human for us to cry for punishment on those who have caused such pain to us and to our families. The Bible certainly seems to validate such cries for vengeance, but the NT adds a further dimension. My favourite definition of forgiveness is ‘the handing back to God of the right to punish.’ However much I might want my enemies to roast in eternal brimstone, I can choose to let God alone have the right to punish, knowing that ‘the judge of the earth will do right’. This sets me free from their power, and it also gives me the satisfaction of knowing that if it comes to it God can mete out much more severe punishment than I ever could. Forgiveness cannot simply mean having nice feelings toward those who have so damaged us, or even trusting them again. But to give back to God the right to deal appropriately with them is as good as it gets, and is a gloriously liberating choice to make.