Monday of Week 17 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 13:1-11

Today’s passage presents the symbol of the “linen loincloth”. It describes, not something that actually happened, but a symbolic vision. The meaning is clear: Israel, whom Yahweh had fastened as close to himself as a loincloth round his waist, had broken away and contracted the corruption of Babylonian idolatry. Not infrequently the prophets like to present the Lord’s message in the form of symbolic images, something like parables.

The prophet is told by Yahweh to purchase a linen loincloth and put it round his waist and he does so. Linen was the material from which the robes of the priests were made and was symbolic of Israel’s holiness as a “priestly kingdom” (Exod 19:6). So the linen loincloth or belt was a symbol of the formerly close relationship between God and his people. Jeremiah is also told not to put the loincloth in water, a symbol perhaps of the sinful pride of Judah, which did not want to be washed clean.

Later Jeremiah is told to take the loincloth around his waist and to hide it in a hole in a rock near the Perath, another name for the River Euphrates. The river Euphrates, which flowed through Babylonia, is here a symbol of the corrupting Assyrian and Babylonian influences, which began during the reign of Ahaz and which brought about Judah’s abandonment of Yahweh for the idols of their conquerors.

The Perath may, however, refer to the town of Parah (see Joshua 18:21-24), which was near the modern Wadi Farah, three miles northeast of Anathoth (Jeremiah’s birthplace). Since in other contexts the Hebrew for Perath refers to the river Euphrates, it serves as an appropriate symbol of the corrupting Assyrian and Babylonian influence on Judah that began during the reign of Ahaz. It is more likely that Jeremiah would have been told to put the loincloth in a place easily accessible to him. In any case, the symbol has the same connotation.

Jeremiah hides the loincloth, as instructed. After a considerable length of time, Yahweh tells the prophet to retrieve the loincloth. The hiding of the loincloth for a long time beside the river represents the period of exile of the Jewish people in Babylon.

When Jeremiah found it, it had become filthy dirty and was fit for nothing, least of all to be worn. Clearly it had become dirty from contamination with the place where it was concealed. The meaning of the symbol of the loincloth is then spelt out clearly. The people of the southern kingdom of Judah and its capital Jerusalem are going to be punished for their arrogance and pride:

Thus says the Lord…I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing.

That had not been God’s idea originally. He had wanted the whole House of Judah to be in a close and intimate relationship with him, just as a loincloth clings to a man’s waist. God says they were to:

…be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory.

Unfortunately, in their arrogance and pride, they refused to listen. Now they will pay the price of their infidelity. They will be carried away by the very creators of the idols they worshipped.

Once again we are being asked to reflect on the idols in our own lives. What are the things, the desires and the ambitions which come between us and our relationship with God? Do we try to compromise, to sit on the fence, try to have our cake and eat it? Do we try at the same time to serve God and ‘mammon’ – something Jesus said was impossible?

Where your treasure is, there your heart is too, Jesus said on another occasion. Where and what is my treasure in life? How close am I to my God and his ways?

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