Entering the Wreckage: Grief and Hope in Jeremiah
BUILDING A DARING COMMUNITY: THE PASTORAL WORK OF SCROLL-KEEPING
In 609 BCE, some ten years before the attack that sent shock waves through the nation, it became clear that those who opposed the policies of the Jerusalem establishment might pay for their opposition with their lives. The official position of the palace and the temple refused to acknowledge that their policies and assumptions were contrary to the will of Yahweh and were leading the nation toward ruin.
Counteracting the acids of modernity, or those of any other epoch in history, is the pastor’s art.
Pastors must proclaim the word of the Lord in the place where it is often most compromised and, therefore, where it will be most desperately resisted. The house of the Lord is a place of ideological contention, and preaching is the voicing of a claim that subverts the false claims of all its rivals. It seeks and hopes, calling to the hearers to listen and turn from their evil ways (26:3). But if they will not listen, walk in Torah, and obey, then the House they’re meeting in will be abandoned and would better serve as a museum or office building with “Shiloh” painted across its door (Ps. 78:60).
When sermons strike at the heart of our compromises, those nurtured in the policies and assumptions of the State recognize the danger of God’s counter-word. Priests, prophets, and all the people who heard Jeremiah knew that what he was saying was subversive. They knew that speaking against their great nation, its greatest city, and its national shrine would not be tolerated by the architects of Judah’s national life. Jeremiah was liable to end up dead the moment he walked out of the building (verse 8).
This text is about what happens in the parking lot after the Sunday sermon, and it’s about pastoral strategies for surviving the rigors of preaching to people who won’t relinquish their captivities. It is a drama enacted every time compromises are exposed. Those nearest the seat of power are most resistant, and if they find themselves implicated by the preaching they will do what it takes to get rid of its voice (verse 11).
Preachers are rarely surprised by the reactions of those they know won’t like what they are sent to preach. But the reactions that we don’t expect are the ones we want to listen to. In the midst of all the brewing trouble caused by Jeremiah’s preaching people into the Exile, comes a surprise reaction that is really gospel. People on the outside will often understand what insiders cannot. Here the text makes a dramatic turn. It is some “elders of the land”—people who don’t read the newspaper or watch the evening news, people outside the reach of the establishment’s propaganda machine—it is political outsiders whose Torah memories are awakened by Jeremiah’s Torah preaching (verses 17-19).
There are people still in the land who listen, who walk in Torah, and who heed the prophets (verses 4, 5). The text wants us to know that it’s the presence of these people upon whom the future hinges. The fact that Jeremiah wasn’t put to death creates a whole new openness to the future that wasn’t present in Jeremiah up to this point. There comes a point in pastoral ministry when we’re privileged to learn that we’re not the sole keeper of the scroll. There are others with us in the work. They may be few, but few is enough.
This is what impresses me about this text. It plants the seeds for what Stulman calls the piety, values, and practices “suitable for the re-imagined community that will emerge from the ruins of exile.” 1 It is clear that Jeremiah operated within a community of scroll-keepers. A generation earlier, Shaphan, the secretary to King Josiah, had received from the priest’s hand the rediscovered scroll of Torah (2 Kgs. 22:8, 10). It may be that the house of Shaphan imagined themselves as keepers of the scroll, and learned ways to nurture a community of faithful adherents that could one day give rise to a prophet like Jeremiah, the community’s most forceful and influential proponent against the corruption and compromises of Judah’s political and religious elite. It is no surprise then that Ahikam son of Shaphan is the one who at the end of this drama is credited with guarding the life of Jeremiah. 2 The scroll now has a voice, and the community must also guard its interpreters.
The pastoral work of scroll-keeping, building a community around these texts, trusts that after the old order of things is plucked up and pulled down, destroyed and overthrown (Jer. 1:10), God will build and plant (1:10) the future on this alternative community that is daring enough to re-imagine the world according to texts very different from those the rest of the world are reading. And while it knows that its life of reading and voicing these texts will not be without risk (this text may name Uriah as the community’s first martyr, with eerie parallels to Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles), it also knows the lyrical promise that “the Lord has created a new thing” (Jer. 31:22).
DECLARING GOD’S NEWNESS: THE PASTORAL WORK OF BOUNDARY-PRESSING
Pastors know that they can’t help people change by pushing harder in the same direction. Pushing people only increases their resistance. And when people are terminally trapped in destructive or debilitating habits, our approach must be particularly skillful. What matters is not the strength of our ethical urging, but the opening of our imagination. Ricoeur argued that we need what he called “limit experiences”: experiences that press us past the limits of what we currently know, past the defenses of our resistance and into genuine transformation. But before we can have “limit experiences” our imaginations must be opened by “limit expressions” that make the experiences possible. “Limit expressions” are words that imagine newness, and words are the particular tools of the poet.
The Exile seemed impossible to those who let themselves believe that their Jerusalem way of life would never come to an end. But once inside their new captivity of Exile, it seemed just as impossible that they could ever be going home. In order to break through a new resistance that was just as debilitating as the old, the prophet practiced a form of preaching that pressed the boundaries of convention: “limit expressions” spoke Judah into Exile, and “limit expressions” would speak Judah home again.
The rhetoric of this poem presses the boundaries in several ways. First, the poem begins in grief that is immediately reversed by the Lord’s strong command to “keep your voice from weeping” (31:16). Second, the description of missing children is reversed by God’s announcement that they will return to the land of mother Rachel (verse 16). Third, Judah’s stubborn refusal to listen to Torah, walk in Torah, heed the prophets of Torah (26:4-5), and lament its past wickedness (7:30) is reversed by Ephraim’s pleading confession (31:18-19). Fourth, the surprising reversal of gender roles signals the unimaginable new things created by Yahweh (verse 22).
This final reversal is particularly important. If the poem draws on creation imagery (Isaiah has a similar phrase in 43:19, but without the explicit language of creation: “I am about to do a new thing”) this announcement is astonishing—a use of language packed with missional energy for the birthing of God’s new community. In the creation, Adam comes first and his life gives life to Eve (Gen. 2:18-23). But in this new creation, the literal rebirthing of a wholly new community, “the Woman will be the agent of new life, new hope for a despairing, sorrowing people. in the context of the poem, the Woman is Israel, typified by Rachel who wept for her lost sons and, through a juxtaposition of imagery, by the Virgin/Daughter who is invited to return and, in the grace of God, to rebuild Israel.” 3
This is an astonishing use of metaphor, imagery, and pastoral strategy. 4 There will come a time when pastors will need to be equally daring to call people out of our exile and into the newness of God. When that day comes, we pastors who have used similar strategies for speaking people into exile will revel in a fresh infusion of missional energy that speaks them out of our exile and into the new and hopeful way of life imagined in this text.
In his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, James C. Scott shows the ways those who live under oppressive systems can exercise enormous power of resistance to the ideological reformulation of their lives according to the symbols and value systems of those who dominate them. The book of Jeremiah and the pastoral strategies practiced by the community that gave it shape suggest that pastoral ministry in post-Christendom, post-September 11 North America understands itself from within the world of those who choose to script their lives as a countercultural presence in a world that does not share its perceptions of the world.
George Lindbeck has said that churches must become “communities that socialize their members into coherent and comprehensive religious outlooks and forms of life,” for “the viability of a unified world of the future may well depend on counteracting the acids of modernity.” 5 Counteracting the acids of modernity, or those of any other epoch in history, is the pastor’s art. Jeremiah knew this well, and bravely carried out his ministry. Similarly, if God is to have a people capable of living evangelically amid the symbols and values, the principalities and powers of those who would dominate us today—co-opting our imaginations to a way of organizing our lives according to the ways of death and not according to God’s way of life—then energetic and daring pastoral work in the mode of Jeremiah will be the stuff of such resistance.
God knows all this cannot be performed in isolation. Jeremiah had his scroll keepers, and if we’re in luck, we have ours. Alastair MacIntyre, at the close of his celebrated and controversial critique of modern moral philosophy, urges that “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. . . . We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” 6
I’m wagering that in Jeremiah, and in the religio-political rebels/subversives who gathered with him around old holy texts, we have a school that can gather pastoral leaders in our day to re-imagine their ministries for new, daring acts of faithfulness.
This is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of International Review of Mission under the title, “Entering the Wreckage: Grief and Hope in Jeremiah, and the Rescripting of the Pastoral Vocation in a Time of Geopolitical Crisis.” It has since been republished in Out of the Strange Silence: The Challenge of Being Christian in the 21st Century, edited by Brad Thiessen (Kindred Productions, 2005). It is adapted here by permission of International Review of Mission.
- Louis Stulman, Order Amid Chaos: Jeremiah as Symbolic Tapestry (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 87.
- About Ahikam, Holladay writes: “He had been old enough in 622 to serve with his father in the circle of advisors to Josiah (2 Kings 22:12, 14); it is now thirteen years later. It is his brother Gemariah who would be part of the circle of advisors around Jehoiakim when the scroll was burned (36:12, 25), and it will be his son Gedalia to whom the Babylonians will entrust Jeremiah in 587 and whom the Babylonians will appoint to be governor over the province (39:14; 40:7).” William Holladay, Jeremiah 2: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, Chapters 26-52 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 110.
- Bernhard W. Anderson, “The Lord has Created Something New,” A Prophet to the Nations: Essays in Jeremiah Studies, ed. Leo G. Perdue and Brian W. Kovacs (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1984), 380.
- Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 286.
- George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 127.
- Alastair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1984), 263.