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13th Sunday after Trinity

25 August 2023

3 September, Proper 17: Jeremiah 15.15-21; Psalm 26.1-8; Romans 12.9-end; Matthew 16.21-end

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I WAS so surprised when I read the second half of Jeremiah 15.18 that I had to read it again, and then set off in search of commentaries. A Jewish scholar confirmed that I had not misunderstood the meaning. He called it “an accusation so bold and offensive that it cannot go unanswered”.

This reading is one of the passages known as the “confessions” of Jeremiah. That label witnesses to the natural and human way in which the prophet converses with God: he speaks to God (prayer: vv.15-18), and records God’s responses (judgement: vv.19-21). These confessions are a sometimes confusing mixture, combining language from the law court (pleas for God’s justice) with lament and — as here — reproach.

We mortals had better be very sure of our ground if we are going to reproach God. The writers of parts of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible have a different take on sin, and respond differently to what they perceive or experience as divine injustice. Reflecting on this confession of Jeremiah can enlarge our understanding of how to respond to suffering, so that we learn to offer something better than unquestioning submission to the evils that beset us, or misdirected criticism of God.

Jeremiah’s prophetic experience helps with interpreting Romans and Matthew; for both these New Testament books call attention to the problem of suffering. Paul sets out a series of 23 commands in vv.9-18. It contains only five that are phrased negatively (“do not”). That in itself expresses a truth of our faith. As the old song says, we ought to “Ac-cent-u-ate the positive” (and, conversely, “eliminate the negative”).

Among the positive commands, some are absolute — like the commands to love, rejoice, be patient, persevere. Paul does not make them interdependent with other people or external circumstances. These we have no option but to do our best to fulfil. But they are not the whole picture; for there are positive commands that require more than an individual commitment or determination. Associating with the lowly is such a one. What if the lowly do not wish to associate with us? Paul acknowledges the difficulty when he adds a clause to the command to live peaceably with all, “so far as in you lies”.

It is often difficult to admit that we are ourselves responsible for discord or unhappiness within a group. Passive aggression (or “pass-ag” in today’s shorthand) is a useful human wheeze for sidestepping responsibility: “I have not changed; I have not done anything; therefore, I cannot be at fault.”

For Christians, though, there are times when doing nothing is an action. To prevent our justifying our tendency to negativity and obstructiveness, we have a moral category: the sin of omission. An obstacle to doing good need be no more than something, or someone, standing in the way of some positive thing or act. In other words, we do not need to be doing something in order to be doing something wrong. Without moving a muscle or saying a word, we can be committing a sin, or working against God’s purposes.

Jeremiah tries to stir God to action (at least, that is how I read the passage) by calling him a “deceitful brook” and a dried-up water source. This must mean that God is not what he claims to be: namely, a source of life and growth. It is a challenge to God to put right his omission, his failure to act. And it succeeds.

When it comes to the Gospel, this truth of human psychology is turned upside-down. Passive aggression usually implies an obstructive attitude to change, or a refusal to engage with positive action. But, when Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem, he declares an attitude of passivity, in which he must “have many things done to him” (v.21, my translation).

I have referred before to this shift from active doer, teacher, healer, to the passive one who suffers and endures, the one who has things done to him. At this moment, Jesus turns negative suffering into a positive. In place of passive aggression, we — like Peter in the Gospel — find ourselves face to face with the very opposite: active peaceableness. The clunky phrase does no justice to so beautiful a transformation, but it is accurate, for all that. It teaches, paradoxically, that, by doing nothing, Christ will “make all things new” (Revelation 21.5).

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