PostScript: Shocked into seeing
Jeremiah and Jesus shine unwanted light on what we need to see.
We have some big jolts from shocking images evoked by Jeremiah and Jesus (as reported by Matthew). If we feel we frankly have enough on at the moment without more unsettling angst from Scripture, fair enough. Maybe we should cut each other some slack and read something else. On the other hand, if we stay with these very hard Scriptures, we might find some perspective on our current worries and even some ways of praying.
The first shock is Jeremiah accusing God of seducing him. The word is that which you’d use if you were a virgin, tricked into consensual sex by someone pretending to care. It is deeply distressing. He uses it three times, once blaming God (20.7), once blaming himself for being duped (20.7), then once more to describe his supposed friends plotting to trick him (20.10b).
Jeremiah’s distress is that he has always spoken the truth but, after incessant attack, including an overnight session in the stocks, he feels the cost is too high. He goes on after this passage to say he wishes he had never been born. He is in a long line of Biblical figures, Moses, Elijah, Jonah, whose mental health suffers because of the unbearable strain of their in-between role.
But he has to carry on because the truth is like a fire in his very bones (20.9). Here we have a powerful description of the frustration, unspent energy, and something good become potentially damaging if unfulfilled or unexpressed.
And still it goes on
You may have noticed, as the ‘i’ newspaper has, scientists advising the Government are swiftly sacked or silenced at the moment if they say anything critical of government behaviour. They too are in the long line of people going back to Jeremiah whom people with power attempt to silence or disgrace.
Marcus Rashford’s interview on Breakfast TV about his experience of hardship and the need for food provision when school meals are not available during the holidays was very moving. He is rightly lauded. Any MPs who have raised this again and again, and even last week, do have the right to feel angry, though, that their questions have been batted aside and the temporary change of policy smacks of false friendship to the poor, and desperation over reputation rather than wise leadership.
Prince William has been putting time and energy into telephone counselling, as he encourages unembarrassed public conversation about mental health, even more complex during the pandemic.
Now, from this difficult passage, perhaps people emerge for whom we must pray:
- We pray for any whose truth speaking has cost them their job.
- We pray for people who have no one to speak up for them.
- We pray for young people, confinement adding complexity to natural teenage frustration, feeling some truth burning within them, trying to find expression.
- We pray for any whose experience of prejudice or false friendship is deep and hurtful, who find mockery relentless and the passive aggression of a society ignoring gender injustice, ethnic bias or other prejudice too exhausting to keep on absorbing.
- We pray for any whose mental health is under strain because of the nature of their role, especially in positions of leadership.
- We pray for all who have hurt they need to fling at God, and any who wonder if they should trust God at all.
- As we remember Jeremiah worried that people whispered ‘terror is all around,’ and as we receive sometimes mixed messages about safety and opening, we pray for wisdom and patience to discern truth and risk, to distinguish between posturing and policy, and to understand what exactly is at risk in our common life.
- We ask for reassurance for those who feel deeply that terror is all around and struggle to venture out. Show us how to protect and reassure.
The life of a slave?
Perhaps, in the light of recent conflicts, we will recoil most when Jesus compares the life of discipleship to being a slave. The unbearable weight of the history of slavery has borne down on our current politics and culture, as in Bristol last week.
This is one of the most scorching sermons from Jesus, as he seems to say how impossibly dangerous the role of telling the Good News is, then seems to demolish the relationships that might support us and constitute the fabric of society. The mother in law-daughter in law relationship is one of the most crucial, transmitting the life sustaining wisdom of one generation on to the next through the young woman, joining the household soon, no doubt, to bear children. Brothers will fight (there are plenty of sibling rivalries in Scripture) but we are heartbroken to think of faith being the cause.
But we must hear the heartbreak in Jesus’ voice, coming out as angry irony. He knows people will bear the cost of following him, sharing in the rejection he will soon go through. He encourages his disciples not to fear ‘them’, meaning the ‘wolves’ among whom he candidly sends them (10.16). These may include the authorities, but also those who drag people before the authorities, wanting them to get into trouble (10.17). With rhetorical force he tries to break the power of the culture over people’s lives. We can read it like this: ‘Don’t fear those who say you should be cast on the rubbish heap for all eternity. Fear the one who could, and doesn’t. HA! What’s Rome got over you now?’
A word about his daring language though. Disciple is dignified. Slave is not. Why does he use both images? Families are good aren’t they? Why does he hammer them? Worse, why does he actively say we are unworthy if we love them more than him? He knows it is not his followers’ fault they will be persecuted for speaking of grace. It is the world’s fault, so it is deeply ironic that he pretends it’s his fault (‘I have not come…’ 10.34). It is unquestionably Rome’s sword that is to blame. Rome enslaves. By shockingly comparing his followers to slaves, he includes disciples who really are slaves and, in that sense, frees them from those who claim to own them. He stoops rhetorically low to raise them up. As for not being ‘worthy,’ it’s a shock to hear, until we remember we aren’t called to be worthy. He provides the worthiness. No, that twist is there to shine a light on the church as a new place for anchorage if your family is tragically broken. He is predicting the suffering of the church and offering hope. By the time Matthew records this, he is describing what the Church has indeed experienced, so if anyone is at worship hearing his Gospel, having lost their family because of their commitment to Christ, it is indeed an encouragement, not a criticism.
Many images from the last fortnight strike deep fear: fires, angry crowds, hatred spat across police lines. One image stands out, though, glowing with most unexpected hope. Praying on Father’s Day the hope is multiplied as Patrick Hutchinson’s daughter and granddaughters jump for joy seeing their grand/father’s gracious strength, carrying an injured white far-right protester away to safety.
Now, we might find ourselves praying:
- God, we feel the sadness of Jesus’ description of family breakdown as we hold before you the members of our family we miss: parents, children, in-laws, siblings. We pray for joyful meetings as restrictions gradually ease. We pray especially for those households where someone has died and they have not been able to say a proper goodbye.
- Hearing the searing irony of Jesus, we ask you to open our eyes to our wilful familial divisions, as if there isn’t enough conflict out there already. Put our pettiness in perspective and reveal to us the gifts in each other that we risk taking for granted or under-valuing.
- We let Jesus shine his loving light to reveal the fault lines in our families and wider relationships, asking for your healing. We pray for families where lockdown has revealed fractures not acknowledged before. Where separation is becoming the only option, we pray for it to be as kind as possible.
- Reveal the fault lines in society of prejudice, injustice, poverty and privilege. Give us courage and patience to attend to them, imagining what Jeremiah and Jesus would have to say. Amid the conflict we look for acts of grace and expose ourselves to their good contagion. We take courage to pray, too, on Fathers’ Day for any who are absorbing racism casually spoken as a norm in their family.
For discussion or further reflection
- How do we balance the ‘burning in [the] bones’ that may lead some to demonstrate (for stances we agree or disagree on) and the duty to protect others by not gathering in large numbers?
- Are there any issues that would bring you on to the streets in protest at the moment?
David Warbrick is Vicar of All Saints Kings Heath in the Anglican Diocese of Birmingham
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