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Trinity 15, Proper 20, Yr C, Tr. 1, 19/9/04, St Mark's
Jer 8.18-9.1: for the hurt of my people I am hurt
Ps 79.1-9: Help us, O God. We have become a reproach
1 Tim 2.1-7: Pray for everyone; there is one God and one mediator
Luke 16.1-13: rich man & cheating manager; sacked, reduces what is owed; Jesus 'commends' ironically; can't serve two masters.
Collect: steadfast in faith, active in service
Post Com: keep us from things hurtful, lead us to things profitable to salvation (1304-86=1218)
Summary: Jeremiah was not just a prophet of doom but also a prophet of hope. May we hear and take to heart both parts of his message as we gear ourselves for action in a time of radical change.
We are in the midst of a series of readings from the Book of the prophet Jeremiah. While Jeremiah was still in his late teens, he was appointed a prophet in Judaea, perhaps initially in a guild of professional prophets. This was about 627 BC during the reign of King Josiah, and he was active regarding the affairs of Judaea for the next 40 years and then some.
Viewing events from what he believed to be God's standpoint, he did not keep silent. He certainly upset King Jehoiakim after he came to the throne in 608 BC by assaulting the king and the temple, so much so that he had to be protected by his friends among the noble families of Jerusalem.
When, some 11 years later, Zedekiah came to the throne, Jeremiah repeatedly warned him and the people not to revolt against Babylon. He openly proclaimed that Jerusalem would fall if it happened. Now cities generally were centres not only of commerce but of culture, social interchange and security. It is with this in mind that centuries later a heavenly city, in fact, a heavenly Jerusalem, is envisaged as the goal in such New Testament writings as Galatians, Philippians, Hebrews and Revelation. So when the revolt began Jeremiah told the people to flee from Jerusalem, for it would not be a place of safety. Despite this the king still kept consulting Jeremiah. The king's ministers, however, wanted Jeremiah dead. Since they did not dare to kill him, they instead charged him with desertion to the enemy and put him in a pit-house, expecting him to starve to death. However, even then, the king moved him to a better prison.
Now most of us have probably at some time or other felt like we were caught between a rock and a hard place. Jeremiah certainly felt so. There are a number of passages in the book which are often called the confessions of Jeremiah. In these Jeremiah complains that he is caught in a bind. The Lord has given him a message to deliver that no one is going to want to hear, namely, flee from Jerusalem, for Jerusalem is going to fall. If he proclaims the message, he will bring down trouble on his head, and this did indeed happen, as I have said, including his being imprisoned as a traitor. But if he doesn't make his God-given proclamation, the word of the Lord will sit in his belly and give him the worst possible case of heartburn. If he keeps it in, it eats up his guts, if he lets it out, others attack him. A no-win situation. But yet a situation in which the Lord wins out and Jeremiah makes his proclamation no matter what the cost.
Our reading last Sunday pointed to the imminent fall of Jerusalem, and in today's reading it is upon them, and Jeremiah feels with and for his people in their misery.
We find equivalent words in the passage in Matthew and Luke where Jesus says, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken." (Mt 23.37-38; Lk 12.34-35a).
Jesus was on a serious mission, proclaiming the imminent breaking in of the Kingdom of God, and the need for a decisive and speedy response. The whole tone of our gospels shows that he convinced his followers of the importance of his mission and its consequences. Perhaps that is at least part of the reason that we find so little humour in the Gospels. But what we do find is irony, as in Jesus talking about himself and John the Baptist in Matthew and Luke, when he says, "To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market place and calling to one another, 'We piped to you and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and you say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of man has come eating and drinking; and you say, 'Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" (Mt 11.16-19; Lk 7.31-34) A case of dismissing the message by deriding the messenger. It sounds like much of present day politics.
And then there is Jesus' irony about the weather, a good British topic. In Matthew we find Jesus saying to the Pharisees and Saduccees, "When it is evening, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.' And in the morning, 'It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times." (Mt 16.2-4). And in Luke Jesus says to the multitudes, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, 'A shower is coming'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?" (Lk 12.54-56).
Today's gospel is another such passage. Jesus speaks in worldly terms regarding knowing the signs of the times and reacting accordingly. In today's gospel the dishonest steward does not dither around but acts quickly and decisively, colluding with his master's debtors to assure himself of having a future free from hard labour or begging.
I suspect that this quick and decisive action was the original point of Jesus' story, with the rather tortuous ending about which master to serve being added on by Luke or his community.
Now we find ourselves in a critical situation, focused in this diocese on our being: "Called to a New Kingdom". Not just our diocese, but the whole of the Church of England is facing falling numbers and finding itself in straitened financial circumstances in which stipendiary posts are being reduced and parishes are being converted to united benefices, as in our own case.
The time is critical, and we will not have the luxury of sitting around and waiting for something to happen, hoping, in Mr Macawber's words, that "Something will turn up". Some serious planning and action are called for, not least in this united benefice. We have a gospel to proclaim and to share to the glory of God; just how we are to do it effectively remains to be seen, but we must get on with the task urgently, for, as we are all aware, time is short.
Incidentally, Jeremiah was a man to put his money where his mouth was. Not only did he rightly say that Jerusalem was going to fall, but he also proclaimed that in good time God would restore her fortunes. To this end in the sight of many witnesses he bought a piece of land in Jerusalem and buried the deed in a jar for that future day. So Jeremiah was not just a prophet of doom but also a prophet of hope. May we hear and take to heart both parts of his message.