Slyne with Hest
The priest, Pashhur, has beaten Jeremiah and placed him for a day in the stocks at the gate of the Temple, provoking Jeremiah to announce explicitly that Pashhur and all Judah will be taken captive to Babylon (20.1-6). With the priest publicly abusing him in the Temple itself, Jeremiah now uses the language of rape to accuse God of enticing and overpowering him. But even in his distress, he sees that it is really his human enemies who are the ones seeking to entice and prevail against him. They may denounce Jeremiah as causing ‘Terror-all-around’, but that is the new name that Jeremiah has given Pashhur (20.3). It is the rebellious priest and people who are the true cause of the coming ‘violence and destruction’ about which Jeremiah feels compelled to speak. In his suffering Jeremiah is already experiencing the captivity that awaits the people. In recognising that ‘the Lord is with me’, he can even see his release from the stocks as anticipating their subsequent deliverance. This would have been a message of great encouragement to the Babylonian exiles, who were perhaps the first to read the completed book.
Jesus’ followers are called to be ‘like the master’ (v.25), as members of his household. Master and servants are demonised together by those who are opposed to the work of the Spirit. Paradoxically, this work is to oppose the household where the master is indeed Beelzebul, ‘the ruler of the demons’ (9.34; 12.22-32). The disciples are to be like the teacher in speaking for him (vv.26-33), and suffering with him (vv.34-39). And, reading on a couple of verses, those who welcome his disciples welcome Christ himself (vv.40-42).
Jesus’ disciples are not to be afraid. Those with power to kill the body may rely on cover-ups and secret processes, but God knows their dark deeds, and will bring them to light. God’s liberating truth can be publicly proclaimed by those willing to suffer for it, knowing they are precious to their Father, in whose household ‘even the sparrow finds a home’ (Psalm 84.3). That God knows the number of hairs on our heads echoes part of the divine reply to Job (Job 38.37–39.2). God knows what we do not, but speaks to say that the kingdom of heaven belongs to ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’ (Matthew 5.10). It is those who have the courage to speak for Christ who are his household (see also Hebrews 3.6,14). He will acknowledge this before the Father, who is both his and theirs.
The bringing of the sword represents the reality of the conflicts facing Matthew’s first readers. These Christian Jews, as individuals, families and church communities, have to live out their relationships with the wider Jewish community and within the Graeco-Roman world. That ‘one’s foes will be members of one’s own household’ (v.36) reminds us that what is at stake is the priority of membership of the household of Christ over all other loyalties. Finding life is becoming Jesus’ brothers and sisters, the family of those who do the will of his Father in heaven (12.50). No lesser loyalties can be allowed to obscure that divine truth, although brothers in the flesh, such as Simon and Andrew, and James and John (10.2), by the same argument, also become brothers in the Spirit.
The links between the lectionary readings
Jeremiah is derided as ‘Terror is all around’, and Jesus and his followers are demonised as ‘Beelzebul’. In both cases it is those who claim to speak for God who are most vociferous in their denunciation. Jeremiah’s suffering leads him to wonder whether he is the one deceived by God. Under persecution, some of Jesus’ disciples are tempted to deny him. But the prophet keeps faith with the Lord who is with him, and the faithful disciple knows she is precious to God. In the midst of death they are already being delivered, and finding what it means to be fully alive.
A personal prayer
God of all goodness, I could not have borne the suffering of Jeremiah and stayed strong. I could not have borne the ridicule, the pain, the rejection. But I praise you for his example, and for the example of all those today who follow in the footsteps of your Son and go on trying, go on trusting, and go on loving you above all else. Amen.
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