Sunday, March 08, 2015

Sunday Morning Service: Jeremiah and the Value of Not Being Answered

I used to try to be upbeat and witty every time out, here. Then I went dark. Still, I like to avoid the personal, even if I am changing the rules. For example, I'm not going to talk about how our latest college president disappeared one weekend and why this good result was for a bad cause. That sort of thing would really get eyeballs, but it would be the kiss of death (or the second base of death, or maybe even the going-all-the-way of death). I also try not to go into purely religious stuff.

Well, nuts to that. You've been warned.

I will confess, first: I knew Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Thou Art Indeed Just Lord" before I knew the lament in Jeremiah that Hopkins is referring to. If you can read his sonnet, understand it, and not feel a sharp nail in your heart, you're stern, grim, and possibly psychopathic:
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
    Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
I've written about the sonnet before, and here, so I won't belabor the faithful or task the fickle. His reference is to Jeremiah 12.
1 You will be in the right, O LORD, when I lay charges against you; but let me put my case to you. Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
2 You plant them, and they take root; they grow and bring forth fruit; you are near in their mouths yet far from their hearts.
3 But you, O LORD, know me; You see me and test me -- my heart is with you. Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, and set them apart for the day of slaughter.
4 How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people said, "He is blind to our ways."
5 If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?
6 For even your kinsfolk and your own family, even they have dealt treacherously with you; they are in full cry after you; do not believe them, though they speak friendly words to you.
It's strange, isn't it? Any reader can figure out that there are divisions. Like a sonnet, we can see pieces. Lines 1-4 seem like a completely different thing from 5-6. In fact, 1-2 is the charge, 3-4 is a call for justice, and then 5-6 are . . . different. The first part is the question of theocidy -- why is sin allowed to continue, and why do the evil prosper? The context of the twelfth chapter is that Jeremiah has discovered that there is a plot to kill him.

Lines five and six are God's answer. We're often thrown off in reading Psalms and the major prophets by the shifts in voice, because ancient Hebrew did not have quotation marks or use our conventions in signaling speaker shifts. God's answer to Jeremiah is, essentially, "If you're ready to give up now, just wait for the challenges coming up! You have no idea what injustice is."

Everyone who has read the Bible notices that Jeremiah's first lament is like Job's. Job is the master class in both theocidy and perseverance. However, Job is global and cosmic. Job asks about suffering, whereas Jeremiah asks, as the psalmist does, about the very specific problem of frustration, hopelessness, and fruitlessness in the midst of the prosperity of the wicked. Jeremiah, unlike many of the psalms, can see that there are two systems of "good" at work, that there is the "good" of wealth and plenty, and there is the good of God's will. As the wicked run riot, there is an evil and a greater evil, for not only does the pious man suffer, but the world is degraded and brutified by being under the control of evil men. He appeals to the judgment for the good of the land and the man.

It is the most specific formulation of the question of why the wicked prosper, and Jeremiah is calling for a hastening of the Day of the Lord. He would, therefore, seem to demand a specific answer.

God's answer is specific. However, Jeremiah has enough knowledge of the cosmic and human scales of justice to invoke the dual outrage, but not enough to actually locate his own place in those scales. Nor does he understand more than his own heart, ultimately, at a particular time. God answers with the specifics that Jeremiah is really moved by. Jeremiah is afraid and outraged by a plot, and God tells him that this is but the first hurdle. In Jeremiah's own biography, this grievous moment will only be a moment, and this danger will be, comparatively, an inconvenience.

The big question gets answered in that way. It is the same way that Job is answered. God does not translate His justice into human terms for a human, who is always a component part of that justice, to understand, but, instead, refers outward. For Job, God referred to eternity and creation, to the world itself. For Jeremiah, it is his life and the history of the men plotting against him.

The lack of an answer is the answer, but not in the way that silence is an answer. The answer is not "ineffability," nor is it merely, "suffer and learn," but rather an answer that points outward, always outward, beyond the person asking and the powers of language to contain. Job must gain, lose, and gain and bless the Lord for the blessing to mean as fully as it does, because the context is the meaning of "The Lord has given. The Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." Only outward, beyond the encapsulation of the phrase, is there meaning for the phrase.

For Jeremiah, the answer will come not from questioning, but from the campaign of his whole life -- the race with horses and the thickets of Jordan -- which will both moot the complaint and make Jeremiah one of the answers to the question.

I couldn't think of any pictures for this one.