Thought for the Day : Wednesday 17 March

Thought for the Day by Phil Gardner (All Hallows’)

Readings: Jeremiah 18:13–23 and John 10:11–21

St Patrick (5th century AD)

Jeremiah is angry. He’s publicly warned the people – and so in effect the ruling elite – over and over again that if they persist in evil God will punish them, but if they repent God will be good to them. A familiar prophetic message, one that he really doesn’t want to deliver, but God’s word burns in his bones so that he is compelled to speak out. It’s a frustrating duty because it’s worse than unpopular, it’s dangerous. Even worse, it doesn’t seem to be working. No one listens, they just laugh at him and tell him he’s raving mad. So he’s fed up with God for insisting that he carries on with this pointless mission.

Perhaps he is a bit mad, or at least it looks like it, because some of the symbolic actions that God tells him to do are, frankly, weird. What would you do if you thought God was telling you to buy some underpants or knickers, wear them for some time without washing them, then hide them in a rock crevice by the river; then, later, go and find them and see what state they were in? To be honest I would think that had to be a delusion: either God was crazy or I was. But Jeremiah did as he was told, and there was a point to it – a very graphic, not to say stinking, demonstration of just how ruined Judah’s condition was as a result of their unfaithfulness to God, their idolatry and their oppression of the poor and needy.

But the rulers not only stubbornly refuse to listen, they get so fed up with Jeremiah’s prophecies that they decide to silence him by means of false charges. The religious establishment (the priests, the prophets, the respected advisers) are telling them what they want to hear; Jeremiah is way out of line. This was happening more than 2500 years ago, but those in power use the same techniques today – look at Alexei Anatolievich Navalny, currently in a Russian concentration camp (his words) after a string of false charges … and it would be easy to find many other similar cases.

Jeremiah’s reaction is understandable. They’ve crossed the red line. He complains to God and asks him to punish them as he (Jeremiah) had said God would. It seems obvious that’s what God must do now. But Jeremiah knows God could still change his mind, so he gives God some terrible advice: deal with them while you’re angry. Acting (or speaking) while in the heat of anger is the last thing one should do, as we know today and as Jeremiah should have known if he was familiar with any of the sayings about anger that were later collected in the biblical book of Proverbs. (See for example Proverbs 15:18 and 16:32.)

It seems to me Jeremiah is projecting his anger onto God. And while God’s judgement on the Kingdom of Judah did happen later – in 587 BC, when the Babylonian armies conquered Judah and destroyed Jerusalem – God didn’t follow Jeremiah’s advice and ‘smite’ them there and then.

Okay, so Jeremiah got that one a bit wrong. But I want to focus on his honesty with God, even when he wants revenge or when he finds his life and calling unbearable (chapter 20). When we pray, are we willing to open up to God and admit our feelings and our mistakes, even if some of them are shameful? God is our loving Father/Mother, who gladly forgives us when we get things wrong, and who wants our relationship with God to be real and genuine, without the self-censorship that we can easily fall into.

PS Apologies to those with Irish connections for not basing this Thought for the Day on St Patrick. But here’s a quick after-thought: Patrick was originally from what is now south-west England, in his day part of the Roman province of Brittania, but as a young man he was captured by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland (Hibernia) to work as a slave. He escaped and got back home, but despite those dreadful years of slave labour there he later went back to Ireland and, as we all know, served God by spreading the Christian faith there. As with Jeremiah, even great suffering can bear much fruit.

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