Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading we hear that the king’s leading men urging that Jeremiah be put to death. Jeremiah was thrown into a well and it was assumed he would die there, but one of the king’s servants convinced the king to rescue Jeremiah. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus spoke a harsh message. He told his disciples that he was sent to bring “fire to the earth.” He told them that his message will divide families against themselves.
I’ve spent most of in and around churches from Manassas, Virginia to San Jose, California. I’ve met my share of saints and sinners, and (frankly) more than my share of those who viewed a life of faith as a way to fame and fortune. The apex of these folks tell me how much they think they can be prophets: they believe their wisdom and intelligence will so impress God that they will be rewarded and all will be well.
When I hear this I understand that these well meaning believers simply haven’t read Scripture and have no idea that the calling to prophecy is a lonely, thankless, and dangerous calling.
And today we find the prophet Jeremiah as Exhibit A. Jeremiah was born in a difficult time: he warned the Jewish power structure that if they continued in their sinful ways they would be punished by God. As you can imagine, that wasn’t heard well.
Speaking truth to power is never easy because invariably power speaks harshly back to truth. The Jewish leaders didn’t reform, or even defend their behavior. Instead they ganged up on him and threw him down a well where they expected him to die. In fairness, Ebed-melech appealed to the king and Jeremiah was saved and it’s worth knowing that Ebed-melech was a servant or slave to the king. It’s also worth noting that prophets never come from the ranks of the rich and powerful.
All of us, in a variety of circumstance, are called to tell the truth; sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s difficult. We like to think that doing the right thing is always clear and always easy. But it’s not. We’re all good people and sometimes we’re called to do the right thing in difficult circumstances.
I’m certain Jeremiah found no joy in his message. He would have loved nothing more than to be born into a place and time when everyone around him loved God and his neighbor, who followed God’s commands without question, a place where all was well. But he wasn’t.
Neither are we. Truthfully, nobody has been born into a place and time that wasn’t in need of reform. All of us, all of us, sometimes find ourselves called to speak truth to power and recognize that power isn’t necessarily interested in truth.
A few years ago I worked for a hospice that wasn’t well run; not surprisingly it’s no longer in business. They never appeared interested in patient care, perhaps assuming that was the problem exclusively for the field staff. But they were intensely interested in profit and making money for the senior staff. It wasn’t easy to work in that environment, caring for terminally ill patients, while being criticized for lack of profitability. Some of us were vocal, and some of us were not, and in the end all of us lost our jobs when the hospice shut its doors.
But the hardest part of this experience wasn’t the senior managers whose greed led to the ultimate demise of this hospice. Far and away the most pain came from people who I knew to be good people and good clinicians who nevertheless abandoned their values in the hopes of self preservation. In 1978 nine hundred and nine people in Jonestown, Guyana, South American committed suicide by drinking kool aid laced cyanide and since then the phrase “drinking the kool aid” has become a meme for lacking the courage to stand up for the truth.
We should celebrate those who refuse to drink the kool aid and instead draw deep into their well of courage to find the voice of justice. Readers of the Harry Potter series need look at its first volume to find an excellent example: fans of this series well recognize the major characters: Harry Potter, Hermione, Ron Weasley, and others. Near the end of the fist volume, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone we find a scene where Harry, Hermione, and Ron near the climax of the story: they needed to accomplish one more job to save the day. Not knowing this, one of their classmates, Neville Longbottom, attempted to stop them. Neville didn’t know the whole story, but nevertheless acted with great courage. At the end of the school year the headmaster awarded points to each house (dormitory) based on individual conduct. The headmaster awarded 10 points to Neville and said this: “There are all kinds of courage. It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. I therefore award ten points to Neville Longbottom.”
Today we live in a world that gives too much weight to fairness and not enough weight to justice. In any dispute we find voices that promise to give us both sides of an issue and let us decide. But we live in a world that constantly calls us to justice over fairness. I’m reminded of a quotation from South African Episcopal Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
I believe that’s how we need to read Luke’s Gospel. It’s a jarring Gospel, particularly when Jesus claims not to be here to bring peace on earth. It’s hard for us to read this as we see Jesus as the “Prince of Peace.” He is, but that doesn’t mean the type of peace that never challenges injustice.
In 1884 a group of Christians gathered in Chicago to begin publication of a magazine called The Christian Oracle. By 1900 they believed that the 20th Century would accept Jesus’ teachings so well that “genuine Christian faith could live in mutual harmony with the modern developments in science, technology, immigration, communication and culture that were already under way.” In less than 20 years Europe would attempt to heal from a war that we now call World War I.
I write this not to make us feel that evil will always win. But I do write to say that our call to justice calls us to ongoing vigilance. Our call reminds us that we Christians need to find and identify injustice regardless of its source or intent. Speaking truth to power isn’t easy but it’s also not convenient or polite.
Prophets may not always be liked, but they will always be just.