Tuesday of Week 17 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 14:17-22

This passage was written during a period of death and famine in Jerusalem preceding the Babylonian captivity in 587 BC. It is also a response to Yahweh’s anger against false prophets who are raising expectations among the people that they are not going to experience “sword, famine and pestilence”. In fact, they are going to experience all these things. Jeremiah, as a true prophet, will not raise such expectations but, however unpopular his words, warn them of what is coming – and why. This won’t make him very popular; real prophets seldom are.

As written, however, today’s passage is another lovely reading today full of compassion and tenderness. There is no anger in God’s words today against his people. Rather he is presented as deeply upset over their sufferings.

“Tears flood my eyes… since a crushing blow falls on the daughter of my people.” The ‘daughter’ is Jerusalem. Everywhere God sees people in the countryside killed by the sword and in the city sick with hunger. Even the prophets and priests, who would normally be supported by the people, are reduced to foraging for food “in a land they know not”. All are at their wits’ end.

Jeremiah then expresses his own distress at what is happening and wonders what the Lord is doing about it. “Have you rejected Judah altogether?… Why have you struck us down without hope of cure?”

It is the cry of a people deep in despair at their never-ending sufferings.

“We were hoping for peace – no good came of it!
 We wait for a time of healing – but terror comes instead!”

At the same time, the prophet acknowledges that his people are in no way innocent. They have brought their own tribulations on themselves. “We do confess our wickedness… we have indeed sinned against you.”

But he reminds the Lord that they are his own people and, for his own Name’s sake, he prays that they not be rejected. “Remember your covenant with us and break it not.” Their suffering and shame somehow reduces the glory of their God, especially in the eyes of Gentiles. Who could honour a God who allows his people to suffer in this way?

But it takes two to make a covenant and its observance depends on both sides keeping their promise. He is their God but they are his people and must show it by their behaviour. This they have miserably failed to do.

The prophet concludes by appealing to the unique power of their God. “Can any of the pagan Nothings make it rain? Can the heavens produce showers?” We remember the challenge that Elijah made to the priests of Baal about breaking a drought. Only Yahweh could bring the longed-for rain.

“Oh, our God, you are our only hope, since it is you who do all this.”

We see here, on the one side, the picture of the tender God who cares so deeply for his people. This was all so graphically illustrated by the life of Jesus, our God incarnate. We must never forget it.

On the other side, during times of tragedy, pain, loss or distress it is easy for us to wonder if our God really does care that he allows such terrible things to happen to us or to our loved ones. But it is precisely at such times we need to be aware of the closeness of God’s love to us. His love for us was most clearly shown as Jesus hung dying in terribly agony and shame on the Cross.

“God did not spare his own Son” and Jesus himself cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words died on his lips and were followed by total acceptance when he said, “It is finished” and he surrendered his life into his Father’s hands. That was the moment of supreme love, the moment of new life and glory.

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