August 14, 2016
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Jer 38:4-6, 8-10
You might hear a self-deprecating friend refer to himself as old “stick-in-the-mud,” a person who hates change, prefers to keep things the way they are—the kind of person who resisted giving up his typewriter, still has a VHS collection and hasn’t stopped sending email forwards. Getting stuck in these insignificant ways might be funny, but sometimes we get stuck in ways that are entirely serious—stuck in a bad relationship, a sinful habit, or a spiritual plateau.
Why do we become “sticks-in-the-mud”? It is so easy to coast. Once we get things worked out to a place where life is minimally comfortable, relatively easy and somewhat stable, it is so easy to let things go, to forget about growing as a person and just slide through life. We do this in so many ways—by taking the easy route, by not rocking the boat, by being passive. We might call ourselves “laidback” or easy to get along with, when really we have become people-pleasers who are not growing closer to God, but just coasting along.
Jeremiah, Not a Stick-in-the-Mud
Ironically, the person least guilty of such faults became literally stuck in the mud: Jeremiah. In his book, his tough, stubborn personality shines through in his confrontations with kings, priests, prophets and others as he sticks to the message God has given him without deviating or cowering because of other people. Jeremiah was not a people-pleaser, but a God-pleaser. He needed to be in order to fulfill his mission of predicting a terrifying judgment against God’s people: the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people from the Promised Land. Jeremiah did such a good job at sticking to his message that even when he was imprisoned, he did not deviate.
An Irksome Message
Even though his message was irksome to the political authorities, his anointing by God was undeniable. Right before the scene depicted in this Sunday’s first reading, the weak King Zedekiah pays a secret visit to Jeremiah while he’s in prison. The king wants to know what will happen to him and Jeremiah tells it like it is: “You shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon” (Jer 37:17 RSV). Zedekiah might have been hoping that a little time in the slammer would soften up old Jeremiah and make his message more amenable to the king’s ears, but the prophet stands firm, dishing up the hard news without fear of the consequences.
City on Edge
The main problem is that the Babylonians are laying siege to the city of Jerusalem. Everyone in the city is starving or close to it. The men are at arms, guarding the walls against attack and everyone is on edge, knowing that the denouement to the whole endeavor is close at hand. Jeremiah’s “negativity” in this situation—his faithfully proclaiming the warning messages from the Lord—gets him into a whole host of trouble with the political authorities who are trying to keep the people together in the face of the Babylonian threat. But Jeremiah is good at his job—listening to the Lord and proclaiming what he hears. He does not kowtow to human authority, but relies on God.
Tacit Death Sentence
The court officials finally can’t take it anymore and come to the king about Jeremiah: “Let this man be put to death, for he is weakening the hands of the soldiers who are left in this city” (Jer 38:4 RSV). They claim Jeremiah’s words of divine judgment are taking the heart out of the men defending the city, which for them is tantamount to treason. Speaking against the state in a time of war is always dangerous, even if you’re speaking the truth. King Zedekiah won’t pronounce an official death sentence on Jeremiah because he knows Jeremiah is a real prophet anointed by God and he fears the consequences of such a condemnation, so he lamely yields to the officials, “the king can do nothing against you” (Jer 38:5 RSV).
The politicians throw Jeremiah into an old cistern. Cisterns were large underground storage tanks for drinking water, which had a small opening at the top. They make great prisons since they are virtually impossible to escape from—like we see in the Joseph story (Gen 37:24). Jeremiah’s particular cistern doesn’t have any water left, but it has plenty of mud into which Jeremiah sinks, perhaps knee-deep. He is going to die in this state from thirst, starvation and exposure. Thank goodness he has a friend!
A Friend In Deed
As news of Jeremiah’s muddy condemnation spreads through the court, one man, Ebed-melech the Ethiopian (one of the few black characters in the Bible) catches wind of it. Ebed-melech, at the risk of his own life, approaches King Zedekiah and asks for permission to rescue Jeremiah. Again, Zedekiah manifests his weakness as a ruler, always being pushed about by whatever petitioner, and allows Ebed-melech to proceed with the rescue operation. Ebed-melech gets some men, some ropes and some rags and hoists Jeremiah out of the muddy prison back into the light.
Jeremiah’s plight in the cistern reminds me of Jesus’ saying about the Pharisees: “they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matt 15:14 RSV). The court officials thought that they were on the right side, defending the city of God against foreign attackers and condemning the treasonous prophet to death. But in reality they were the real “sticks-in-the-mud,” the blind guides in a pit. Jeremiah, the only one really listening to God, was the only one who could really see clearly, and he gets thrown into a pit.
We want to avoid being like those court officials—always defending the status quo even in the face of clear divine mandate for change. That is, we don’t want to be sticks-in-the-mud, resisting God’s will for our lives while coasting through life. Rather, we want to be open to Him, listening for his voice and having ready hearts, willing to change when we hear him speak. Beyond that, we want to be like Ebed-melech, a true friend who was willing to risk his life for Jeremiah. In fact, we could also use a true friend willing and able to pull us out of the mud we get ourselves into from time to time.