Brief synopsis of the readings: In Jeremiah he complains against God: “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced.” He talks about being ridiculed and being a laughing stock. Every time he attempted to stop speaking his truth, he found he couldn’t do it because there was “a fire burning in my heart.” In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus foretells his passion, that he would suffer grievously at the hands of the Jewish elite. When Peter objected saying this would never happen Jesus turned on him and said: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path.” He then told those gathered that to follow him they must take up their cross and follow him. He ended this reading with this: “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and, when he does, he will reward each one according to his behavior.”
From time to time I hear someone talk about wanting to be a prophet, one who speaks for God. Though it’s not easy I’m normally able to hide a smirk and gently suggest they read more about how prophets are treated. Prophets are never sent by God to proclaim that all is well, and most of the time they are sent to proclaim unwelcome news to those in power. And that brings us to our friend Jeremiah.
I’m also amused by those who insist that we sin when we express (or even think about) anger toward God. Here Jeremiah is furious, and not without reason. Jeremiah witnessed injustice and faithlessness and called it out. And for this he was persecuted, ridiculed, and laughed at, and it got to him.
And he blamed God for this. The word we read is “seduced.” I’ve also seen it translated as “duped.” I’ve thought about this a great deal and it sounds to me that Jeremiah expected better treatment than he received, that his listeners would actually listen. They didn’t and he found himself stuck.
There’s nothing here to indicate that God would punish Jeremiah for walking away from his role as a prophet. Instead Jeremiah made it clear that his own moral compass would not allow him to remain silent. In the face of injustice and faithlessness Jeremiah just couldn’t (in words of a former coworker of mine) help himself from poking the bear. And even though he paid a great price he could do no other.
And we see that with Jesus. We don’t normally think of Jesus as a prophet but, in a sense, he did the same thing: He proclaimed God’s truth to those around him. I’ve spoken about this before, but we’ll never know how much Jesus knew of the path before him, but today’s Gospel gives us a hint that he knew that his message would not be welcome among the wealthy and powerful. He knew that speaking truth to power would cause him great suffering and he knew that he didn’t want that, but needed to do it.
In that context we can understand one of the most puzzling of Jesus’ quotes, when he responds to Peter’s offer of support with: “Get behind me, Satan!” I don’t think Jesus was calling Peter “Satan” but instead was tempted by Peter’s promise of protection. In the same way Jeremiah couldn’t take the path of safety, neither could Jesus.
Neither should we. Those who speak truth to power understand that others will speak power to truth but it doesn’t mean we’re wrong. In so many places, in so many situations, in so many experiences we are called to one decision and pressured into another. And frankly, we all have our regrets.
When I was in my middle 20s I administered a Sunday School program and I blew a decision. All Catholics are aware of the minefield of 2nd grade. That’s the year the children receive their First Communion, an event overflowing with expectations and traditions. Our class was so large that we needed to split it in half and have First Communion on consecutive Sundays, evenly divided among the four teachers. One of the teachers told me she had a scheduling conflict on one Sunday and needed to make sure her class was assigned to the other Sunday and I assured her that would happen.
Unfortunately I wasn’t fully aware that this teacher was in an ongoing feud with my assistant. The next day my assistant informed me that she had already made the assignments and this teacher would miss her class receiving their First Communion. My assistant played every card she had, including loyalty. I should have (and could have) overruled her but I bowed to her pressure and told the teacher we couldn’t change it.
As you might guess, this turned into a huge conflict and I was eventually forced to reverse my decision. This was good news to the teacher but she lost respect for me. My assistant was furious, claiming that I “hung her out to dry.” The only winners in this were the 2nd graders who got to have their teacher with them.
Here’s what I learned from this: Succumbing to pressure to make the wrong (or safe) decision will never make me proud, or right, or better able to sleep at night. I also learned that it’s fixing a bad decision isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Finally, I read these readings thinking about John Lewis. If you don’t recognize his name, please, please, please look him up. He was born in 1940 in segregated Alabama and was taught that people of color needed white people to care for them because they couldn’t care for themselves. He didn’t believe it and as a teenager he wrote a letter to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. When he was 23 he spoke at the Lincoln Memorial (the famous “I Have a Dream” speech), and in 1965 he suffered a broken skull on “Bloody Sunday.” He later spent much of his career in Congress, known as the “conscience of the Congress.”
I don’t think anyone would deny that John Lewis was a prophet. But we need to remember that in the 1950s and 1960s he wasn’t seen as a prophet. He was seen as “uppity” and someone who “didn’t know his place.” The local sheriff promised to keep the protestors “in their place.” Mr. Lewis spoke truth to power knowing that he, like Jeremiah and Jesus, would pay for this.
Our call to speak truth to power likely won’t cause us to be beaten with clubs but we need to recognize that we are all called to do the right thing even when it won’t make us popular or liked.
We may not suffer physical injury but we all will feel seduced or duped when we do the right thing. When this happens, let us gain strength from Jeremiah, Jesus, and John Lewis.