ColumnsSunday’s Word

Jeremiah’s complaint

June 21, 2020


Jer 20:10-13

Jeremiah’s complaint

Ps 69:8-10, 14, 17, 33-35

The psalmist’s complaint

Rom 5:12-15

The second Adam

Jn 6:51-58

The risks of discipleship


Jeremiah had enemies. But there was a reason for that. He said openly things that were not to be acknowledged. He was a prophet, and lived out the vocation of a prophet. At the very beginning, in his call to prophecy, he was reluctant (Jer 1:4-10). He knew that it would require him to say things that would anger people, and so he protested against the idea. Unfortunately, that probably demonstrated his aptitude for the job. In any case, God responded with a promise that he would support him. But now it turns out as bad as Jeremiah had foreseen, and he takes it up with God.

There are six bitter complaints in the book of Jeremiah that have given us the word “jeremiad”(11:18-20; 12:1-4; 15:10-21; 17:12-18; 18:18-23, 20:7-18). He makes his case based on the earlier assurances of God. Jeremiah tells God, “You duped me!” (20:7).

Jeremiah’s lived at the end of the Judean kingdom. Babylon was about to crush them, conclude their kingdom forever, level the temple, and carry their citizens off to exile. They would never fully recover. It was his place to announce what was happening before their eyes, though they wouldn’t admit it. However, he would not let them escape the full truth of what was happening. Despite their efforts to silence, and even kill him. He was inconvenient, and they would like to sideline him, dismiss him as ridiculous, or crazy.

Here as we reenter the Ordinary Church Year, we are invited to witness the dilemmas of Jeremiah. And we return to Matthew’s Gospel just as the disciples are beating sent out on mission, two by two. Matthew devotes an entire chapter to this instruction of Jesus, sending for the missionaries, the apostles. The example of Jeremiah invites us to highlight one particular aspect of this instruction.

“What I say to you in the darkness,

speak in the light;

what you hear whispered,

proclaim on the housetops.

And do not be afraid of those

who kill the body

but cannot kill the soul”

(Matt 10:27-28).

In his account of the mission of the Twelve, Matthew is doing more than reporting an event that happened in the time of Jesus. He is also previewing the future life of the church, that would come about in his day. Some of these words are specifically intended to support the members of the early church in the difficulties they were facing.

We sometimes think that the early Christians experienced persecution because evil people just could not bear the thought of virtuous persons, as if there was no motivation for their persecution. However, Jeremiah’s is telling us differently.

Something new was happening in the movement called Christianity. In the ancient world, religion was part of your family heritage, it was a given. It was your identity. The notion of conversion was exotic. It presumed individual initiative that took one outside the frame of normal life. It implied a dissatisfaction with the status quo. It implied that “normal” was not enough. The threat of the early Christians had something of Jeremiah’s in it.

So it is that the Gospels show Jesus, at the climax of his public life, quoting Jeremiah in the cleansing of the temple, borrowing words from Jeremiah’s own temple protest (Matt 21:13: Jer 7:11). The disciples of Jesus are expected to share his mission and its risk. But as with Jeremiah, who received words of assurance from God, so Jesus assures his disciples — “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge … So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

For reflection: Things have changed since the early days, it would seem.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.