Thursday of Week 16 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 2:1-3, 7-8, 12-13

We have today a passage from the earliest preaching of Jeremiah (chaps 2-6) which preceded the reforms under King Josiah. They would again become relevant with the relapse of the people into idolatry and the threat of the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, when Jehoiakim was king of Judah. The wickedness and backsliding of God’s people will be vividly portrayed in numerous colourful figures of speech.

Today’s passage speaks in touching language of God’s relationship with his backsliding people. The relationship is expressed in terms of a marriage that started so well but went so badly wrong. “I remember,” God says through his prophet, “the affection of your youth, the love of your bridal days.” It is like a husband reminiscing about the days of his first love and the honeymoon period that followed the wedding.

The word for “affection” here translates the Hebrew word hesed. It stands for the intimacy between Israel and God within the covenant, here with the accent on a mutual love. It expresses “the most intimate degree of loyalty, love and faithfulness that can exist between two people or between an individual and the Lord,” as one commentator puts it.

“I remember how you loved me as a bride.” Early in her history, Israel had enjoyed a close and cordial relationship with the Lord, who is often described figuratively as Israel’s husband. Hosea, in particular, loves to use this image. But it was a love that did not last and was transferred later to “foreign gods”. In the days in the Sinai desert, they were with Yahweh but later they followed “worthless idols”. In those early days, they showed their fidelity by following Yahweh “through a land unsown”, arid and infertile, and where they lived in total dependence on Yahweh. Now, in their prosperity, they go for other indulgences.

In those days, they were a people truly sacred to their Lord, set apart to him and his service. They were the first-fruits of his harvest of peoples. The best of the first-fruits of Israel’s crops were supposed to be offered to God as a sign that he was their source; now here God’s people are the first-fruits, the best and choicest of all.

And yet, in spite of all they were given, they betrayed the trust that God had in them and disaster overcame them. God kept his promise and brought them to a “fertile country”, “into the garden land to eat its fruits”. (The word for ‘fertile’ in the Hebrew is karmel, which means ‘orchard’.) This was the Promised Land which was the complete opposite of the “unsown” desert in which they had wandered for 40 years. Everything in the new land was for them. But what did they do? They defiled it, that is, through their idolatrous practices they made the land ceremonially unclean. “You made my heritage loathsome.” What had been God’s inheritance given to them became hateful in God’s eyes.

The very priests no longer paid attention to God. “They never even bothered to ask, ‘Where is the Lord?'” They never consulted Yahweh. Those same priests whose responsibility it was to administer the Law had become strangers to God. “Those who dealt with the Law”, namely, the priests, “knew me not”. “The shepherds,” that is, the king and the ruling classes, “rebelled against me.” The prophets prophesied in the name of Baal and not of Yahweh, putting their trust in “useless idols” which were utterly powerless.

God, through Jeremiah, calls on the heavens to witness to this appalling situation. “Stand aghast, you heavens!” In the Hebrew it is a powerful combination of similar-sounding words: shommu shamayim.

The people have committed a double crime. On the one hand, they have turned their backs on God, the source of living water, of true life.

At the same time, they have tried to provide water themselves in cisterns that consistently leak and provide no regular supply of water. A kind of watertight plaster was used to prevent cisterns from leaking. The image here is that the idols, which God’s people are now worshipping, will, like broken cisterns, always fail to provide the people with the life they need. Only Yahweh can provide this water.

The lovely image of God as living water is one that is found often in the Scriptures. “From your delightful stream you give them to drink” (Ps 36:9). “All you who are thirsty come to the water”, cries Isaiah (55:1). Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman of the living water which only he can give (John 4). Again, in the Temple at Jerusalem Jesus cried out to the people around: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water'” (John 7:37-38)4). In Revelation, the one on the throne says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life” (Rev 21:6)

In our own days, there are so many, including many who are baptised, who try to replace God, the source of life-giving water, with other things they believe will provide the happiness and contentment they seek. It may be money in all its forms, success, fame, popularity, material goods, sex, etc. Yet all these are in the long run (and often enough in the short run) no better than leaking cisterns which (to mix the metaphor!) quickly turn to bitter-tasting ashes.

Let us learn to see that the vision of Jesus is truly the Way, the way to wholeness and life.

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