Friday of Week 17 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 26:1-9

Note: because of today’s feast for Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus, some parishes may use the readings for the memorial rather than this reading for Ordinary Time

Today’s reading from Jeremiah is in historical or biographical form. Some believe these passages may come from the prophet Baruch. It tells of the Jeremiah’s discourse to the people warning them about disasters which will come unless they change their ways. His message will not be well received by the priests and people.

It takes place at the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah. The Hebrew term indicates rather the beginning of his first official (calendar) year as king, rather than the time of his immediate succession. This places it in the year 609-608 BC.

Jeremiah is told by Yahweh to go to the Temple court, perhaps near what was called the New Gate, and to speak to all those who had come from the surrounding countryside of Judah to worship. He is to say exactly what Yahweh has told him. Through his prophet, Yahweh promises that, if they listen to Jeremiah and change their ways, he will not bring disaster on them.

The Lord’s warning comes in the clearest language. If each person listens and turns back from their evil ways, the Lord may repent of the evils he planned to inflict on them. On the other hand, if they will not observe the Law and listen to the words of his prophet, the Temple will end up like Shiloh and the city of Jerusalem will become a curse word among the nations of the earth.

Shiloh was an ancient shrine which was now in ruins. The sanctuary there was apparently destroyed by the Philistines. In the first book of Samuel we read: “Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen. And the Ark of God was taken” (1 Sam 4:10-11). Jerusalem, says Yahweh, will meet the same fate.

Not surprisingly, this message did not go down well with those who heard it. The priests and prophets seized Jeremiah and threatened him with death. The phrase they used described the ultimate penalty for those who seriously violated the law of Moses. The ‘prophets’ here are those false prophets who gave upbeat prophecies putting unrealistic hopes in the people’s minds and glossing over their wrongdoings.

All were horrified and enraged that the Temple should become like Shiloh and the city become deserted. These were absolutely unthinkable ideas. How could God allow such a thing to happen?

But it would and very, very soon. And it would happen again about 40 years after the death of Jesus – never to recover. St Augustine had similar feelings when he saw Rome (for him the centre of the world and its civilisation) fall to the ‘barbarian’ invaders.

Once again we see the dangerous vocation of the prophet. He is blessed with a special insight and he can see where the behaviour of people is leading them. He gives warnings but they fall on deaf ears. Even worse, they are rejected and the prophet is seen as an enemy to be got rid of. But he has no option but to continue speaking out.

What makes the matter more complex is that there will be confusion between true and false prophets and often the beguiling messages of the latter will be listened to. Careful discernment is needed to distinguish the genuine prophet from those who either lull us into complacency or, on the other hand, tell us that “the end of the world is nigh”.

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