Jeremiah Week 5

The Cost of Discipleship

By Dr. Stephen Fowl

Professor of Theology, Loyola University Maryland

Read this week’s Scripture: Jeremiah 15:10-17:27


Simeon Solomon, The Drought
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Many of you will recognize that I have borrowed the title of this lesson from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work of Christian discipleship. Bonhoeffer wrote this book to call German Christians out of their complacency so that they might properly address the rise of Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer and the relatively few who followed his call suffered rejection, imprisonment, and often death in order to remain faithful to Christ’s call to take up the cross and follow. There must have been times that these disciples, like Jeremiah in this week’s reading, wondered whether obedience to God’s call was worth the cost.

The Price of Obedience

This passage begins with Jeremiah questioning his own vocation. Jeremiah does not question whether he has been called by God. Instead, Jeremiah questions whether the message he carries is worth the hostility he must face as a result of that message. He does not doubt that God has called him; instead, he laments the cost of that call. He questions whether it was even worthwhile to have come out of the womb. He notes that he has not been involved in any of the practices that typically provoke hostility, such as borrowing or lending money. Nevertheless, he is reviled by his fellows.

The imagery in Jeremiah 15:10–12 recalls Jeremiah 1. When Jeremiah questions whether he is worthy or capable of taking up the mission God has given him, God notes that Jeremiah has been known since he was in the womb. In Jeremiah 1:18, God tells Jeremiah that he will be an iron pillar and a bronze wall, capable of withstanding the resistance his message will provoke. Nevertheless, Jeremiah will experience the fall of Judah. He and his neighbors will suffer the loss of their possessions and their land. Many will go into exile in Babylon. This is due to the sins of the entire nation. As unpleasant as it sounds, the implication is that Jeremiah will prevail against his domestic opponents. But this is hardly the message of comfort which Jeremiah seems to be seeking.

God’s promised judgment evokes an even deeper cry of pain from Jeremiah. Jeremiah begins this lament by noting that the LORD knows all about Jeremiah’s situation as well as Jeremiah’s fidelity. He reminds the LORD that he has suffered reproach because of his fidelity. Nevertheless, Jeremiah has remained faithful to his vocation. Indeed, Jeremiah delighted in the words he received from God. He took up his mission with a certain joy. Now Jeremiah accuses the LORD of abandoning him. He likens God to a spring that promises water, but then dries up (compare this with Jeremiah 17:8). God promised to stand by him, supporting him in what was always going to be a difficult mission. Now God seems to have broken with Jeremiah despite the fact that Jeremiah has been faithful.

Given the way this lament has developed, it calls for a response from God. In Jeremiah 15:19–21, God responds, but not in the way that Jeremiah was hoping. God’s answer plays on the verb “to turn” (shub), which is repeated four times in verse 19 (though that is not always reflected in English translations). The LORD calls Jeremiah to turn, or repent. If Jeremiah will turn toward God, God will turn toward him. If Jeremiah gives up these worthless words, he can continue to speak for God. Moreover, God announces that the people will turn to Jeremiah, but he must not turn to them. Rather than offer false comfort, the LORD has called for even greater fidelity. Jeremiah is called to return to the LORD, directing his attention only on the LORD. He is not to focus on the people to whom he speaks. Their time is up. Even if they turn to Jeremiah, he must not let his gaze waver from God. As chapter 15 concludes, the LORD does reassure Jeremiah that his domestic opponents will not overcome him. The LORD will protect and sustain Jeremiah from his opponents in the land.

Jeremiah has a remarkable freedom in addressing God, even calling God to account. This freedom reflects a deep intimacy. At its base, it reflects a confidence that God and Jeremiah can speak freely with each other; they can say hard things to each other and know their relationship can withstand it. Jeremiah openly calls on God to be faithful; he seeks reassurance that all will be well with him. Jeremiah does not receive the comfort he wants. Instead, God reaffirms a two-fold promise: first, God will defend Jeremiah from his foes among the people; second, this people — including Jeremiah — will suffer destruction and exile at the hands of the Babylonians.

The next words from God that come to Jeremiah begin in a very personal way (Jeremiah 16:1–7). Jeremiah is not to seek a family for himself: no wife, no children. As this passage moves along, it becomes clear that Jeremiah’s solitary life will at least shield him from the grief that all parents in Judah will feel as they see their children die through war and famine.

Just as Jeremiah is forbidden earlier to intercede for these people, in 16:5 God tells him not to mourn for these people. God has removed peace (shalom), steadfast love (chesed), and mercy (rachamim) from this people. This is a devastating confession. These are God’s three greatest gifts to Israel. The relationship between Judah and the LORD cannot persist in the same way under these conditions. Exile and separation are imminent. Despite the severity of this announcement, God also forbids mourning or lament for this situation (Jeremiah 16:5). This indicates that however else one wants to describe things, this is not a tragic situation. This future calamity has real discernable, direct, and avoidable causes. From the LORD’s perspective, this calamity is the predictable, if destructive, result of Judah’s persistent idolatry. In Jeremiah 16:10, when the people ask, “Why has the LORD decreed such disaster against us?” the answer is clear. The LORD sees these people of Judah as the most idolatrous of all the generations who came out of Egypt. This judgment in part stems from the fact that they should have learned from God’s judgment of previous idolatrous generations. Instead, they have been remarkable in their stubbornness.

Future Restoration

In the midst of this anticipation of Judah’s comprehensive judgment, God announces a future restoration (Jeremiah 16:14–21). The juxtaposition of judgment and restoration without any clear transition is quite sharp. Nevertheless, it serves to remind the people that judgment and restoration are united in the scope of God’s plan. This restoration is compared to the exodus. Just as God brought the Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land, God will bring the exiles back to the Promised Land from all those places to which they had been scattered. Before that, however, God uses images of fishing and hunting to indicate that the inhabitants of the land will be hunted down and taken away. Those familiar with Jesus’ promise to make Peter someone who fishes for people to become followers of Jesus might now read that passage in a new light. Instead thinking of a leisurely afternoon fishing on a lake, this is a picture of intense, comprehensive searching for prey. Here in Jeremiah, God uses the image of fishing for people as a way to convey a picture of a thorough purging of the land because no one is hidden from God’s sight.

The chapter concludes with a return to restoration. Now, however, in verses 19–21 we read how restoration will affect the nations. They, too, will turn to the LORD. They will recognize the folly of their idolatry and learn that the LORD is the one true God.

Simeon Solomon, The Drought
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Habits and Motives of the Heart

Chapter 17 begins with God’s observation of the ways in which Judah’s idolatry is deeply ingrained. It is inscribed on their hearts in the way words might be chiseled into stone. One of the key points here is that idolatry and righteousness do not just happen. They are the result of patterns of life, habits of thought, learned actions and responses. In short, we are formed into idolatry. The fact that few, if any, Israelites ever sought to be formed into idolaters should remind us that some of the most long-lasting formation in our lives happens without us really recognizing it. The fact that one is not actively seeking to be formed in one way or another does not mean that formation is not occurring. Our desires, habits, and actions are always being formed and shaped. Moreover, as this passage notes, our formation has a direct impact on our children’s formation. Attentive, watchful, prayerful reflection is a crucial practice to develop if one is to resist being formed toward idolatry and the punishment that follows in its wake.

In Jeremiah 17:5–8, we read of a contrast between those who trust in human wisdom and capacities and those who trust in the LORD. The contrast does not leave much middle ground. One trusts either in humans or the LORD. The latter leads to flourishing, the former to withering. If one reads verses 9–13 as a continuation of this reflection, then we are directed to recognize that often the actions of those who are relying on human resources and capacities and the actions of those who rely on the LORD may seem similar. This may appear particularly true in times of seeming prosperity. Sometimes the only difference may lie in the motives of the heart. In such cases, we learn that all hearts are open to God, no secrets are hidden from God. Ultimately, the LORD who knows all thoughts of the heart will reward and punish accordingly.

In Jeremiah 17:14–18, Jeremiah repeats a pattern of lament that we have seen before. He pleads to God for vindication in the face of opposition; he reminds the LORD of his fidelity to his mission. He seeks refuge in God and asks God not to be a source of terror for him. Jeremiah has made God’s cause his own. Now he wants God to make Jeremiah’s cause God’s cause, defeating and punishing his opponents.

Keeping the Sabbath

In response, God tells Jeremiah to position himself at all of the gates of Jerusalem, urging her citizens to keep the Sabbath holy. Failure to keep the Sabbath will lead to destruction. Keeping the Sabbath will result in a secure future under a Davidic king.

For Christians, in particular, this may seem to put an excessive weight on Sabbath observance, particularly in the light of Jesus’ announcement that the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Two things may be said in this regard. First, Sabbath observance is one particular way of showing one’s disposition to the whole of the law. Second, and more importantly, the Sabbath laws are clear opportunities for believers to not participate in the exploitation of those who cannot control their own time, such as low-wage laborers in service industries or those under the commands of overweening bosses.

Alternatively, those of us who have a lot of control over our time may find the Sabbath a troublesome interruption to our struggles to get ahead at all costs.

Largely in the light of Jesus’ treatment of the Sabbath, Christian practices around Sabbath observance vary widely. Even so, if Christians were to reflect critically on their Sabbath practices, they might find that those practices offer a fairly good barometer of the state of our lives.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Jeremiah is able to speak candidly with God, even “calling God to account,” in the words of the Lectio. Do Jeremiah and God speak to each other in ways that surprise you? How might Jeremiah’s boldness in prayer influence your own prayer life?
  2. The Lectio proposes that Sabbath-keeping practices may “offer a fairly good barometer of the state of our lives.” What are your Sabbath practices? Do you feel that you have time for a Sabbath rest? Why might Jeremiah call the citizens of Jerusalem to keep the Sabbath? What is at stake in keeping the Sabbath holy?

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