Last Saturday, August 29th, marked the feast of the beheading of St. John the Baptizer, the last and greatest of all scriptural prophets. The words from the book of the prophet Jeremiah which coincided in the Divine Office with St. John’s feast could not have been more appropriate, not only to the feast but even more to the present moment in our nation:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Reform your ways and your deeds, so that I may remain with you in this place. Put not your trust in the deceitful words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!’ Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with his neighbor; if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place, or follow strange gods to your own harm, will I remain with you in this place, in the land which I gave your fathers long ago and forever” (Jer. 7:3-7).
Think of the words and phrases we hear proclaimed in our country today. “America First,” “America, the city on the hill,” “America, God’s country,” “America, land of the free and home of the brave.”
“America, the temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!”
God’s intention in speaking his word through the prophet Jeremiah was not to deny God’s presence in the temple. It was to affirm the conditions under which the ancient covenant sealed with Israel on Mt. Sinai and later confirmed eternally through the blood of Christ at Golgotha was accorded (Heb. 9:11-15). It was to remind Israel of the choice they – we – made when blood was poured over the altar at the foot of Sinai (Ex. 24:8) and water was poured over our heads at the baptismal font (Rm. 6:3-4).
“Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds…will I remain with you in this place” (Jer. 7:5).
These words from Jeremiah recall the words Martin Luther King Jr. wrote fifty-seven years ago: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” To reform one’s ways – as individuals and as a nation – cannot mean waiting for ‘time to heal all wounds’ nor can it mean ‘making the best of a bad situation.’ That’s not what it meant for Israel. For Israel it meant change, imminent change or the devastation wrought by the eviction of God from his temple by the wickedness of those who lived in it (Ez. 10:18).
“[Only] if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow…will I remain with you in this place” (Jer. 7:6).
Oppression has never meant violation of the law. Slavery, the mother of all forms of oppression, was legal in human society far longer than not. Oppression means the crushing of one person’s hope for the sake of the safety, security, or even pleasure of another. It means the trampling of God’s promise in another soul because he who tramples is afraid God is not rich enough to keep his promises – of freedom, of life, of security, of meaning, of shelter, of belonging – to all peoples in all times. Some rights must be hoarded; the hope of the resident alien – the immigrant living among us – cannot be accommodated.
“[Only] if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place…will I remain with you in this place” (Jer. 7:7).
Innocent blood has been shed. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Jacob Blake. How many others? How many more?
“[Only] if you no longer…follow strange gods to your own harm, will I remain with you in this place” (Jer. 7:7).
Trump will make America’s streets safe again. Biden will save the immigrants in our country. Sanders will ensure the health of all Americans. Pence will protect the unborn. Harris will justify the tax code. Ocasio-Cortez will bring the Green New Deal to America. A ‘god’ is not a spiritual being with power over the fates of peoples; a ‘god’ is any being at all to whom is ascribed the power to save. “Woe to the obstinate children who carry out plans that are not mine…who go down to Egypt” – the powers of the world – “[for help] without consulting me…Egypt’s shade will bring you disgrace” (Is. 30:1-3).
God’s words through the prophet Jeremiah are as piercing today as they were millennia ago when spoken to a similarly “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in hearts and ears” (Acts 7:51).
As we look to the example of the prophets gone before us – and those still present in our midst – may we “consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8)” May we, like the greatest of all prophets born of women, St. John the Baptizer, be willing to live our lives – and offer them too – for the sake of the name which is above every name (Phil. 2:9) and for the Kingdom of justice and peace (Rm. 14:17) to which that Name is forever bound.
Not to do so comes at our own peril.
“Is it I whom they hurt, says the Lord; [or] is not rather themselves, to their own confusion” (Jer. 7:19)?
Cover image courtesy of FlickrCC user Gerard Van der Leun.