Evensong 13th March 2022
Act with Justice, do no wrong
Jeremiah 29. 1 – 9, 13 - 17
I have said before that it’s understandable that a Jeremy should take extra note when the reading is from the prophet Jeremiah, hard work though that may be. In the Lectionary Jeremiah is Lent, not Eastertide. Open Jeremiah at random and you are likely to get at best a grumble, probably a scathing denunciation, and quite likely a lamentation. To be a ‘Jeremiah’, according to one definition, is to aspire to be someone who ‘complains continually’ or ‘foretells disaster’.
Our Old Testament reading tonight bears that out. Though he has the ear of the ruling elite, Jeremiah’s background is not the city and the ways of court, but a village, Anathoth, outside Jerusalem. Set apart from the inner workings of the kingdom and with a deep immersion in the study of the law, Jeremiah gives a searching critique of the way Judah has lost its way, acted unjustly, and put its trust in models of power which will ultimately fail. He is clear that the injustice he sees will lead to destruction, because the people of Judah are breaking their part of the Covenant, and God’s patience will not be infinite. Power should be wielded with mercy.
In 1917, General Allenby, victorious against the Turks, was preparing to enter Jerusalem. He knew his history, and had had wise advice from the Foreign Office as he pondered how to make a statement as he came into the ancient city. In a symbol of respect he did not enter on horseback, but dismounted and walked through the Jaffa Gate. Power, especially in Jerusalem, needed to be exercised with humility and this conqueror came with an eye to reconciliation and healing. The exercise of the Mandate thereafter was not Britain’s finest hour, but the intention here was sound. Jeremiah, millennia before, had been clear that, to enter the gates of Jerusalem with honour, power needed to be exercised without oppression, and with justice, especially to the poor. If that was not the case, those who entered next would not come in peace.
Though Jeremiah does not condone those who subsequently attacked Jerusalem, took the King prisoner and led the people into exile, and though he does not advocate violence and oppression, he does see these opposing nations as instruments of God’s righteous condemnation of flagrant injustice and idolatrous worship. Such destruction was a manifestation of the Covenant, not an abandonment. So it is that, even in exile, Jeremiah can later encourage the people to pray for the pace of the cities to which they have been sent, because God has not discarded them, only shown them what it is to live with true, selfless, humble, powerful justice.
This is a specific, nation and faith defining story. It cannot be used as the explanation of why bad things happen to good nations, nor to say that oppressive rulers are inevitably the instruments of the righteousness of God. But it is to be used as a lens for nations and individuals to check their righteousness, to measure their justice. If a nation condemns violence and appeals in the name of humanity for the safety of the innocent, that nation has to look carefully at why it restricts its borders and makes looking after the orphan and widow a matter of inhuman bureaucracy, whether in the name of security or no. A Vicar’s daughter, when Home Secretary, made this place a ‘hostile environment’, and such culture asserts itself again and again. Jeremiah says that the good King “judged the cause of the poor and needy”. That is the lens we must apply both to the creator of refugees and to those who seem to be at work to keep them out.
Jeremiah applies all this not just to the nation, but to the individual. The root of the matter is the human eye and the human heart, which apply themselves only to ‘dishonest gain’ and ’shedding blood’ In Hebrew thought the heart was the centre of everything: soul, mind, will. If the world is unjust it is because we are, though the processes of unrighteousness and injustice are greater than the sum of the parts. Nevertheless, we can make our small changes to enable the big ones to take shape too. We can vote for people who will lead with integrity, we can support agencies which are making a difference, we can welcome people to our homes, we can stop treating people as the other and treat them as us.
The Book of Jeremiah is not all gloom and foreboding. Jeremiah goes on to promise a new covenant, and God’s gift of a new heart. May we be those who, like Jeremiah, recognise the need for grace, and who, like Jeremiah, discover and proclaim the love of God who first loves us, and therefore act with humility and justice. May we be those who respond to God’s first loving us in the gift of his Son, and find our hearts remade and rewritten through the love, challenge, forgiveness and wholeness brought to us in Christ our Lord. May we condemn oppression, recognise our need for repentance, and shine light in darkness, for Jesus’s sake. Amen.Print This Page