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Jeremiah and truth to power (May 16, 2021)

Uniform Lesson for May 16, 2021
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Jeremiah 38:14-23

It’s one thing to stand up to the king when things are going well. It’s another thing to speak the truth to the king when things fall apart. Jerusalem is besieged by alternating armies: first the Babylonians, then the Egyptians. King Zedekiah is surrounded by a circle of advisors counseling him to stand his ground and fight for the welfare of his people (38:4). When the Babylonian armies withdraw at the advance of the Egyptians, the hopes of the cabinet rise. But Jeremiah holds fast to his prophecies of doom. He’s thrown into a cistern, where he sinks into the mud (38:6). Having been rescued from the pit, he is summoned once more by the king. The life of the king, the lives of the people and the life of Jeremiah are on the line. What will the prophet say, and what will the king do? Whatever happens, courage will be required.

Jeremiah 38:14-16 — Risky business

It’s risky to enter the courts of power. From Moses to Nathan to Esther, those who would gain the audience of the king do so at grave risk. When a person in power leans toward you and says, “I have something to ask you; do not hide anything from me,” gird up your loins, straighten your back and make sure your affairs are in order. Why? Because while such scenes can lead to elevations (of status, salary, security), they can also lead to elevations of a very different kind (as followers of Jesus know all too well). While the Romans hoped to break the back of truth-tellers by executing them on a cross, the leaders of Judah tried to bury such prophets in holes in the ground. One day you’re walking the streets of Jerusalem. The next, you’ve “disappeared.” These are grave matters indeed.

So, the prophet leads off with a parry: “If I tell you, you will put me to death, will you not? And if I give you advice, you will not listen to me.” This forces the king to swear a secret oath: “I will not put you to death or hand you over to these men who seek your life.” Jeremiah seems to be safe, right? About as safe as Jesus.

Jeremiah 38:17-23 — A call to surrender

When the prophet speaks, he pronounces the last word a king wants to hear: surrender. “Thus says the Lord … if you will only surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live.” You might think this is an easy word. All the king has to do is give in. But this is not an easy word for those accustomed to power. And it is a far from easy word for a powerful person who lacks courage.

King Zedekiah now confesses the fear that has captured his heart: “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, for I might be handed over to them and they would abuse me.” Zedekiah knows what happens to people who lack power. He has participated in such “handing over” himself. So, Jeremiah makes the circle complete. If Zedekiah does not surrender, then the city will be burned, he and all his court will be taken captive and he will find himself exactly where he had recently allowed Jeremiah to be placed. In a vision, the women taken into captivity sing out: “Your trusted friends have seduced you and overcome you; Now that your feet are stuck in the mud, they desert you.” An unseen, but reliable cycle of justice works its way out. The king who buried others is now threatened with burial himself.

The arc of justice

Zedekiah keeps his secret covenant with Jeremiah. He does not put him to death, but neither does he listen to his advice. Instead, he and his court attempt to sneak out of the besieged city and are caught. His court is slaughtered before his eyes, his eyes are then put out and he is bound in fetters for the long trip to Babylon. Because Zedekiah refused to surrender, the city is razed, the population led away and only the poor are left to tend the vineyards and the fields (29:10).

There is an awful justice that works its way out in the words and witness of Jeremiah. This weeping prophet has much in common with a later prophet from Nazareth, who by surrendering to the forces gathered against him, is killed and buried and rises for the welfare of all.

For discussion:  How do we know when to fight, and when to surrender as followers of Jesus?

RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.

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