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Next week's readings: 4th Sunday after Trinity (Proper 7)

by
02 November 2006

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Genesis 21.8-21 or 
Jeremiah 20.7-13 
Romans 6.1b-11
Matthew 10.24-39

GOD commissioned Jeremiah: "Before you were born I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1.5). Jeremiah and his prophecies were elements in the drama played out between God and his rebellious people. In Jeremiah 11-20, the prophet moves centre-stage. A series of "confessions" punctuates his prophecies and the prose narratives describing his conflicts with the powers-that-be.

The prophet laments: "I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter . . . Why does the way of the wicked prosper? . . . Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land . . . Why is my pain incurable, refusing to be healed? . . . Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed . . . You know, O Lord, all their plotting to kill me; let them be overthrown before you" (from Jeremiah 11.18-23, 12.1-6, 15.10-21, 17.14-18, 18.18-23).

The prophet's turmoil is most acute in the last of his confessions, Jeremiah 20.7-18. His predictions of destruction have not been fulfilled. He is both detested and derided; and - in the saddest twist to his calling - he can be vindicated only by the destruction of an ever-recalcitrant Israel. In despair, he looks back to his birth, and so to the origin of his call by God: "Cursed be the day on which I was born. Why did I come forth from the womb to spend my days in shame?" (from Jeremiah 20.7-18).

Jeremiah protests in God's name against Israel's wrongdoings, and in his own name against the role in which God has cast him. Are we hearing, in all these confessions, the unadulterated voice of a single prophet, Jeremiah ben Hilkiah, active (according to the text itself) 627-586 BC? We are more probably hearing words refined over these and the following decades, to represent a servant of God caught between God and his people, in the unfolding crisis confronting them all.

As the servants of the old covenant had suffered, so would the servants of the new. Matthew arranges his instruction carefully: first we hear of Jesus's teaching (in the Sermon of the Mount, Matthew 5-7) and of his miracles (Matthew 8-9). Then Jesus sends out the Twelve. "It is enough", he says, "for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master" (Matthew 10.25).

The Twelve, then, are to preach the same gospel that Jesus preached (Matthew 4.17; 10.7); they are to heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons, just as Jesus did (8.2-9.26; 10.8); and, like Jesus, they are to move from place to place (4.23; 10.11). They are to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; so, too, during his life on earth, will Jesus (10.5; 15.24). They, like Jesus, will be betrayed by those closest to them, and will be delivered over to rulers (10.21, 10.17).

For this Jesus is not the figure who will come, before the Day of the Lord, to bring peace within families (Malachi 4.6). Rather, he will stir the worst of all divisions: "Put no trust in a neighbour," warned Micah; "for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother; a man's enemies are the men of his own house" (Micah 7.5-7).

Through all this, insists Jesus, God will keep close watch over Jesus's followers. Such an assurance confronts, but does not resolve, the question: why do these servants of God suffer evil? Matthew can only call for utter loyalty to the Lord's example: "Those who do not take up their cross and follow me", says Jesus, "are not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10.38).

Does such a gospel despair of this life, in its longing for the next? Far from it. Well before Matthew wrote, Jesus's followers located the new existence within the churches' present life. Paul expects the Roman Christians to recognise a baptismal formula that links the life that follows baptism and the life of glory that will follow death: "All of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus have been baptised into his death; so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (from Romans 6.3-4).

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