Jeremiah 17 anticipates Jesus' message in the Gospel reading paired with it this Sunday. As in Jesus' "beatitudes," Jeremiah lets us in on how the world is really wired, and how to experience true joy by getting our lives aligned with what is really real. Jeremiah 17 presents a choice: will we live wisely and joyfully? Or, will we push ahead with a lifestyle destined for frustration and isolation from the sources of true joy in life, eventually turning us into a "barren bush in the desert"?
There is a deep scandal to Jeremiah 17: It runs up against what the world usually considers to be the actual, pragmatic way of happiness and success. Prof. James Crenshaw at Duke Divinity School has actually recently called Jeremiah 17 “fantasy,” “whistling in the dark,” and a “dangerous lie”! In real life, visible prosperity does not always flow from trust in the Lord. An unjust fortune does not always forsake an evildoer in the midst of his days (Jeremiah 17:11).
Is Jeremiah 17 a fantasy and a lie? Hardly! The lesson does not deny that human sin is a frustration for God. It admits that times of parching heat will come, times of devestating drought (17:8). Nevertheless, one can find "beatitude"--that is, "wholeness" and "fulfillment"--in the midst of adversity. In fact, sometimes, our wholeness, fulfillment, and solid rootedness in God are most easily visible to us at such times. And Jeremiah 17 describes a true propensity of existence as God has created it. Like a sail-boat weighted down on one side, human existence tilts and lists toward righteousness. The dice are loaded in favor of righteousness; injustice is on borrowed time.
In a recent sermon, my student Elizabeth Felicetti (click here) put it this well. A lifestyle centered on autonomous living, self-centeredness, and self-direction must ultimately prove frustrating, self-defeating. It is in the very nature of human beings that we thrive only in truly human, communal mutuality of persons.
Jeremiah bids readers to align their communal life with the patterns of God, the patterns of wholeness and righteousness. Rather than kick against the grain of history, we are bidden to allow God's patterns of joyful living to come into their own, and set history hastening toward righteousness. God's wind is blowing across the sea of life. To live well, to get in synch with what will bring joy, we need to open our sails and catch this wind!