God calls prophets to deliver both bad news and good news, but even good news can be a threat to privileged home folks.
The prophetic reading is the report, in the first person, of Jeremiah’s appointment as a prophet. The readings of the lectionary for this period are still concerned with beginnings, beginnings of commissions for God’s work in both judgment and salvation. Only certain emphases in the rich Jeremiah account will be noted here.
Jeremiah experienced God’s call as one he was fated to before he was even a glint in the priest Hilkiah’s eye (see 1:1). The language is impressive: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (verse 5, NRSV). The mystery of his own personal being – which Jeremiah will discover God treats as his own property, whatever Jeremiah may want – is part of a larger plan that is working out the destinies of peoples and nations.
Thus, Jeremiah has been consecrated, set aside for a holy use, before he even appeared on the human scene. Which, translated into career terms, means Jeremiah has been appointed “a prophet to the nations” (verse 5). His – as it turns out – very long career of delivering hard messages and living through the consequences has to do with the nations. That is, it has to do with world history, the great powers on the horizon as well as the pesky and competing small-power neighbors all around the kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah’s mission is for the nations – what in Latin will be called the Gentiles.
The personal experience of this call includes Jeremiah’s plea against such an assignment being given to a mere adolescent. There is also some concrete act – probably envisioned or actually performed in a liturgical setting – by which God transmitted the power of speech to the prophet (verse 9), a power which will tyrannize over as well as empower Jeremiah. (He complains of the tyranny in 20:7-10.) Jeremiah is also repeatedly assured that he should not fear, because God will be with him – and that will be enough.
So what is all this for? What is the prophetic office to do? God provides a prophet and repeatedly gives oracles because the looming disaster and doom is not meaningless – it is not random and senseless destruction and disaster. It is the judgment of God, with a will and even a compassion behind it. These things, both the judgment and the compassion, are pointed to by the statement of Jeremiah’s assignment: “Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, / to pluck up and to pull down, / to destroy and to overthrow, / to build and to plant” (verse 10). Four out of six verbs refer to coming destruction; two – the last two – refer to restoration and renewal. The heavy message is upfront, but there is some hope for those who survive the deluge.
The Psalm reading looks like Jeremiah in the psalm scroll. The speaker of the passage prays for protection from adversaries. Part of the appeal for help is based on the speaker’s attachment to the Lord since before birth – through pre-natal dedication, as in the case of Hannah’s consecration of Samuel (1 Samuel 1)?. Both the language and the thoughts of this psalm reading recur often in the book of Jeremiah, for example, in Jeremiah 11:18-20 and 17:14-18.
This reading, echoing Jeremiah, recalls that God’s commission to the faithful is likely to lead to opposition, to dangerous adversaries. God’s servant prays for deliverance, though knowing that suffering and trouble come with the job – sometimes even unto death.
I Corinthians 13:1-13.
The Epistle reading continues the discussion of charismatic gifts and the Body of Christ. The previous discussion has included prominently the gift of prophecy, but there is something greater than prophecy. This passage, which treats this “more excellent way” in the loftiest and most eloquent language, is devoted to the supreme gift of the Spirit, agape, translated in older times as “charity,” in more modern idiom as “love.”
This is the gift of the Spirit that makes possible the harmony of all the other functions and offices within the Body of Christ. (See especially verses 4-7.) This amazing poem to love is nested between long discussions of prophetic powers and speaking in tongues, but it is itself the simplest and most profound statement of the secret of life in Christ.
The Gospel reading continues Luke’s story of Jesus inaugurating his mission in Nazareth. The people have heard the reading from the prophetic scroll and Jesus’ declaration that the prophecy about the Anointed One is fulfilled today in their presence. Jesus now goes on with the sermon, based on the prophetic text.
Quickly the reaction sets in. These folks in the Nazareth synagogue do not act as if they are in great distress themselves; their response is not joy at the healing and relief for themselves, which the prophetic reading suggests. Rather, their thought seems to be more status-conscious than oppression-conscious.
Their considered response is, Who is this? And they think they know the answer: it is Joseph’s son, the familiar young man about their town who recently went off and got too large a dose of religion from that wild man on the Jordan River in Judah. If they believe that God has a messianic program in store for Israel, they certainly do not think it can start in their town! Or in any case that Jesus could be such an Anointed One.
Actually most of the people’s response is represented in what Jesus says about it. “You will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” (verse 23). He tells them that they will expect him to do miracles like those heard of from other towns, and in general he points out to them that “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (verse 24, NRSV).
The most far-reaching criticism contained in Jesus’ sermon, however, has to do with the nations. Jesus cites from the scriptures cases of God’s mercy shown to foreigners rather than self-righteous Israelites. “There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, … but Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon” (verse 25). Further, there were many lepers in Israel in Elisha’s time, but only Naaman the Syrian was cleansed. These examples make clear that God’s new dispensation, through the Anointed One, is not confined to Israel. The reaction of the people of Nazareth is taken by Jesus to stand for the whole rejection of his message by Israel. Israel will be left waiting while unlikely people like Sidonian widows and Syrian generals are taken into God’s realm.
This denial of Israelite privilege and status precipitates a riot. The mob drags Jesus out to a cliff – Nazareth has rather steep hills around it. It looks like lynch time is at hand, but Luke presents us with a mysterious conclusion. “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (verse 30). Since my adolescent Bible reading I have been intrigued with this statement. It has such simplicity and, on consideration, is so appropriate to conclude the scene. The violence has come to the surface, it has brimmed over, but the Anointed One passes through and gets on with his prophetic mission to the poor and the oppressed.