The Prophetic Burden
Jeremiah never wanted to be a prophet. That much he makes very clear. From the opening scene in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah onward, this young man does his best — as do the prophets that came before and would come after him — to avoid the responsibility and call that God has placed before him. What we get in this short snippet in today’s first reading (Jer 20:7-9) is just one reminder of the fact that this guy did not ‘sign up’ for the job.
What we encounter at the beginning of the passage is Jeremiah in the middle of a serious lament. He is upset, which might be an understatement, that his preaching has led to personal ridicule, no one will take him seriously, and that those he has been sent to call out — those who abuse power and others, for example — want him gone. He is now fearing for his safety and life, concerned that those who want to silence him will do precisely that. He feels in over his head, lost without direction, upset that his life had to take this turn.
And, in this moment, he blames God.
You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped;
you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.
All the day I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me.
Who else should shoulder the blame? It was, after all, God who in the beginning of the Book of Jeremiah, insists that the young would-be prophet doesn’t know better than God and that God has destined him for this mission from before he was born. Jeremiah feels betrayed by his creator.
But what should he expect?
Those who bear the name ‘Christ’ as Christians should be able to relate well to our predecessor Jeremiah. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that to follow him is no easy task. Jesus is not a sadist, nor is he encouraging masochism among his flock. Those who interpret the “denial” and the “taking up of crosses” as signs that Jesus wants nothing more from his followers than abject self-punishment are missing the point.
The denial of oneself here refers to the situation that we, like Jeremiah before us, often face in our lives of faith. When the going gets tough, we’d rather get going back to our own plans with us as number one. We are hesitant or, more likely, completely unwilling to surrender the possibility that the world revolves around us and that I should first take care to be sure I’m secure or comfortable or whatever before bothering to do God’s will or help others. Instead, the denial has to do with our desire to place ourselves first. Placing God first instead shifts our outlook away from our own navels and out toward the rest of the world right in front of us.
In the end, like a good prophet, Jeremiah anticipates Jesus’s message in the Gospel of Matthew. He understandably and rightly offers his cry of lament to God, embracing the suffering, fear, disappointment, and embarrassment that he experiences as a result of his carrying the cross of following God’s will. But his exclamation doesn’t stop there. Jeremiah says:
I say to myself, I will not mention him,
I will speak in his name no more.
But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.
He at first considers a plan of his own devising — yes, he’ll stop doing what God desires, no longer risk preaching and proclaiming the word of God. Instead he will be silent and enjoy the peace and comfort he once had.
Except, he can’t do that. He realizes that he has a burning desire to proclaim God’s word, to announce the dissatisfaction that God has with the ways in which we human beings treat one another and the rest of creation. Though he tries to be silent, tries to enjoy a ‘normal’ life, he grows “weary holding it in” and must continue with the proclamation. And this is what some scripture commentators refer to as the “prophetic burden,” the drive and fervor the prophet has to proclaim the word of God.
May we find ourselves, even in the midst of frustration, embarrassment, discomfort, and doubt, with the word of God burning like a fire in our hearts. May we grow weary of trying to keep that held in and instead, dare to pick up our crosses, deny ourselves, and be the prophets the world so desperately needs. May we all share in the prophetic burden.