Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81
I once had supper with a young adult parishioner who was returning to college for her final year. Over enchiladas, we chatted about odds and ends of things, including a new love interest. At some point in the conversation (I can’t remember now how we got there), she remarked on a familiar phenomenon—that spooky feeling you get when, seemingly out of nowhere, a phrase comes out of your mouth and it sounds exactly like something your mother would say.
You know what that’s like, don’t you? You swear you’ll never say to your kids the often oddball things your parents said to you when you were growing up. But you do—and you say them with the same tone of voice, the same facial expressions, and the same absolute conviction your parents felt when they warned you, against all the laws of physics, “some day your face will freeze like that!”
“If everybody jumped off a cliff, would you jump off too?”
“You’re going to put your eye out with that thing!”
“’I don’t know’ is not an answer!”
“Always wear clean underwear when you go out because you could get hit by a car and taken to the hospital, and…”
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
“Eat your carrots, they’re good for your eyes! Have you ever seen a rabbit with glasses?”
“Don’t make me come in there!”
Parental pronouncements like these are hard-wired into the human genome. Even as we speak, it’s a sure bet that in East Afghanistan, Northern Lapland, and Lower Slobbovia, parents are saying these very things to their kids too. Where does this stuff come from? Why do parents feel compelled to lay it on their kids?
If you’re a parent, you know. Most of you feel an almost irrational desire to spare your children the trouble that’s out there in the world, as well as the trouble that’s in here, in the heart. Although you know perfectly well in your heads that not even the best advice can assure physical, emotional, and social safety, and not even the wisest rules and regulations can produce well-mannered, respectable children, you’ll never stop harping on the need to look both ways and to chew food slowly. You’ll never stop trying to make the ones you love stand up straight, use indoor voices, and share their toys. If you’ve told them once, you’ve told them a thousand times… It’s for their own good.
Sadly, not all parents feel compelled to spare children life’s grief. Sometimes the very people who are supposed to love us enough to teach, admonish, and correct us are inexcusably careless with our lives. They cause more grief than they prevent. They blow hot and violent, or cold and distant. And when the inevitable damage is done, there is not enough balm in the world to undo it.
Thankfully, most of our caregivers cared for us well, the best they knew how, anyway. Their flaws as parents may have looked unforgivable to us when we were kids, but now we know that they were merely flaws. Perhaps because we are so conscious of our own shortcomings we can more easily forgive them theirs. Perhaps because we now know a lot more about how hard it is to bring up good kids in this world, we understand that on the whole they did a pretty decent job of it. They used to tell us, “Some day you’ll thank me for this.” Chances are by now we have thanked them, or we know we should.
We heard a heated, noisy word from the prophet Jeremiah just a moment ago. Like all the prophets, he preached to a people who had been hand-picked to be the apple of God’s eye. God, we are told, has been taking meticulous care of these chosen people for generations. But they haven’t been particularly grateful or responsive. They’ve been unjust, selfish, and spiritually promiscuous, courting the affections of other “gods” who are, of course, “no-gods.” Nobody, Jeremiah tells us, was interested in the one true God anymore.
And so Jeremiah, speaking for a bereft and offended Deity, warns that there will be catastrophic consequences for this habitual economic, political, social, and spiritual infidelity. And so it came to pass, as the Bible often says. It was a nightmare scenario. The Babylonians invaded, laid siege to Jerusalem, destroyed the temple of Solomon—the center of Jewish worship and the emblem of the people’s special relationship with God—and carried the people off into a bitter, generations-long exile.
Imagining this possible fate over the horizon, it’s no wonder that Jeremiah gives us an exasperated God. He likens God to a spouse who, after years of fruitless counseling and failed reconciliations, is taking this mess of a marriage to court. God wants a divorce. “I accuse you,” God says, bringing a complaint before the bench of an astonished world. “Has there ever been a case like this in all human experience?”
Jeremiah’s God is an angry plaintiff, but in this text God also resembles a parent who’s really lost it with his ungrateful, unruly, disobedient kids. God is threatening to kick them out of the house. God even threatens to unleash divine displeasure on their children’s children, which is an ancient version of what modern parents say when they want to lay the ultimate curse on recalcitrant offspring—“When you have kids, I hope they’re just like you!”
Of course, God’s not-so-holy people have heard all this before. They’ve been acting out for centuries, and the prophets have been yelling at them for centuries. It’s not hard, then, toimagine some of the people mocking Jeremiah behind his back, lip-synching the familiar admonitions as they come roaring out of his mouth. “Yeah, yeah, we know— ‘After all I’ve done for you, this is how you repay me?’ ‘As long as you’re under my roof, you’re going to live by my rules.’ ‘If you worship dead idols you’ll end up acting like dead idols.’ ‘Don’t make me come down there!’
Prophetic belly-aching about the waywardness of God’s people can get a bit shrill. After several chapters of the kind of tantrums the prophets are so good at throwing, you want to send ‘em all to the time-out corner. And so it’s really important to remember that the sins in question here were not inconsequential, and that God had every right to be apoplectic. After all, this was supposed to be the people that showed the world who God is—loving, merciful, just, and good. They were the people who were supposed to be an alternative community in a messed-up world, playing by new rules that remembered the poor, liberated the slave, welcomed the stranger, and beat swords into ploughshares. It flat-out defeated the whole divine purpose when they started behaving just like everybody else—exploitative, selfish, violent, and faithless.
Thus the dirty laundry Jeremiah is hanging out for all to see is not a humiliating ploy aimed solely at making the people be less naughty. God doesn’t really want Stepford children, morally perfect and perfectly presentable. There is more at stake in God’s complaint than just toeing the line. From the time that God begat this people, God has wanted them to be good, of course, but that has never been enough for God. God has a much larger hope in mind—not just good human behavior, but a new humanity altogether, and a new kind of human community. All the ranting and raving is not about proper living, it’s about abundant living.
The final lines of the passage hint at this. There God names the people’s two big sins. First, they’ve rejected God, “the fount of living water.” Living water means running water—fresh, clean, and safe. In that part of the world, a rare and precious thing. And God has promised to get it for them, to give it to them, and to keep it flowing freely. But the people aren’t taking any chances that God might actually provide for them.
And this is the second big sin God names—they abandon trust and go about providing for themselves. They build containers to capture rainwater. And in those cisterns, that water sits for a long time. And when you drink stagnant water, it’s more likely to kill you than refresh your life.
If building cisterns weren’t bad enough, God reveals in the next line that they aren’t even very well-constructed. They’re cracked. They leak like the Ted Williams Tunnel. So, it turns out that not only have the people opted for bad water over living water, they have opted for no water at all.
They have no water. That’s a biblical hint that they are dying. Metaphorically dying, of course, but in the Bible that kind of death can be a lot worse than physical death. A self-made, aimless, faithless, selfish, unjust, empty, dried up sort of existence is a fate-worse-than death.
God wants to spare them such a fate. And that’s why God rails at them through the motor-mouths of prophets like Jeremiah, picking at their behaviors, calling them to account for every big and little thing, saying whatever comes to mind, no matter how outrageous, all in the desperate hope that they won’t go stupidly down the primrose path to certain death.
Sometimes a parent’s loving concern for our overall human well-being comes gushing out in torrents of exasperation about particular unacceptable and uncouth behaviors. In the same way, God’s scolding is aimed not so much to make the people behave in particular instances, but simply to keep them alive. And not to keep them merely alive, but to give them a life they can’t create on their own, a life they can’t even dream of—a life irrigated with living water from springs that won’t go dry.
Our psalm puts it poignantly. “If only… If only you had listened, I would have fed you with the finest of wheat and honey from the rock.” If only… Now that’s a sentiment every under-appreciated parent understands. You spend hours making a fabulous dinner, set the table with care, and then the heathens descend and wolf it all down in two minutes flat. And later you find a wet tangle of brussel sprouts in the potted plant in the corner. You just wanted to please them. You just wanted to feed them. You wanted them to enjoy. If only…
God says, “Look at me! Listen to me when I correct you!” But there is a deeper invitation in that demand, an invitation to be cared for wholly, to be fed in every part of our beings as creatures, to know God’s wonder, to taste and see that God is good. Enfolded in the insistence that we behave is a more wonderful invitation to enjoyment, a summons to a pleasure-laden table where God serves up a feast at which God is happy because we are.
Parents want their children to be good—to have good values, and, if possible, good manners. And why not? But parents know that this isn’t everything. In the end, who cares if children eats peas with a knife or chew with their mouths open? What difference will it make if they do dumb and even hurtful things from time to time? Even if they really sin and show up at Christmas with a pin-striped tattoo that says, “Yankees Forever!”, it isn’t the end of the world. Sins can be forgiven, even in Boston.
You hope they learn your values, live by your rules, keep food in their mouths while chewing, and root for the One True Team, but what you really want, what really matters is that they be happy. If you are a parent, haven’t you said that to yourself a million times? If you’re not a parent, didn’t you hope that’s what your parents wanted for you?
Even parents who rashly disown their children for marrying a Muslim, or for being transgendered, or for refusing to follow Dad into the family business, or for whatever perverse reason seems reason enough to break a relationship—even the most adamantly self-righteous parents go to their graves anguished about how the child they cut loose is doing out there in the world, wondering where she is, praying that he’ll be okay, and that somehow she’ll end up being happy—not just well-behaved, not law-abiding, not even “normal,” but simply happy.
Every lover wants to deposit the moon and stars at the feet of the beloved. Every lover aims to give the beloved a crack at ecstasy. Every lover wants to bestow fulfillment on the beloved, a gift whose precise nature is a great mystery to us and can only be intimated, but which we dearly long to possess even sight unseen.
And this is what God wants too, to give us inexplicable, unearned, uncaused, and unending joy. This is why God seems so frustrated in our text. Nobody wants what God is giving. You can’t pay us perverse children to take it! God can talk and talk till God’s face is blue, and we’ll still do just what we want to do! What’s the matter with kids today? We’re bent on living a lousy imitation of life and eating really bad food. Wheat with weevils. Sweet ‘N Low. Brackish swill from a cracked tank.
Yet all the while, a table is set for us.
All the while, the Parent waits: “Oh if today you would listen to my voice, and walk in my ways! Then I would satisfy you. Then I would feed you with the finest wheat, and honey from the rock.”