Tag Archives: Messiah

Matthew 16: 13-20 Peter’s Confession

Mosaic of Peter from St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican city

Matthew 16: 13-20

Parallels Mark 8: 27-30; Luke 9: 18-21

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, we were introduced to Jesus the Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham but throughout most of the gospel the term Messiah or Christ has rarely been used. The magi inquired of about the Messiah and John the Baptist from prison heard “what the Messiah was doing” but otherwise Matthew has reserved this term until this moment. In the shadow of a city named for Caesar, a new key to understanding how disciples are to understand Jesus is revealed. Peter’s words become the foundation for the confessions of the church that will be raised to celebrate the experience of the kingdom of heaven’s presence on earth. The disciples, through Peter, have enough insight to name what their experience of Jesus acts and teaching mean. Even with articulation of a specific group of titles for Jesus they will still need to understand how Jesus’ actions will shape what those titles mean.

Jesus refers to himself with his favored title, the Son of Man, but then asks what the people say about his identity. The answer, in Matthew, includes references to several prophets. John the Baptist is a recent example and not only has Matthew linked the proclamation and language or Jesus and John[1] and we also have Herod Antipas refer to Jesus as John the Baptist (14:2). Elijah as the prophet who returns to announce the coming of God is also an answer that makes sense within Jesus’ proclamation of the approach of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew’s gospel is the only gospel that includes specifically Jeremiah as the other named prophet, and this is worth noting in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus. Jeremiah’s ministry involved challenging a people who may have returned to worshipping the God of Israel in the temple, but whose religious practices never translated to a return to the covenantal expectations of living under the law. Jeremiah continually found himself in conflict with the authorities of the temple and yet, much of his ministry is a lament for the ending of the kingdom of Judah, Jerusalem, the Davidic kings and the temple as the nation antagonizes the Babylonian empire. The crowds and people will understand Jesus in terms of a prophet, and his challenge to those in political and religious authority in addition to his acts of power to heal the sick, cast out demons and to protect or feed the people will be interpreted by the masses as a part of this calling.

But the disciples, these little faith ones, who have journeyed with Jesus since he called them to join him in fishing for people and gathering the harvest, have been given a greater insight into the person of Jesus and his identity. His question to them about his identity is answered, on behalf of the rest of the disciples, by Peter. Peter, since asking to join Jesus on the water in 14: 28-33, will often be one who speaks or acts on behalf of the rest of the disciples through the remainder of Matthew’s gospel. The disciples in the boat (14: 33) already declared Jesus the Son of God, but now Peter adds the title Messiah/Christ to this identity.

As mentioned before, the Son of God title in Jewish thought is linked to one’s role as a king and the linking of Messiah and Son of the living God here just emphasizes the connection between the one who is appointed king and the appointer in God. Even though I believe Matthew wants us to hear more than just Jesus as the ‘anointed king’ in this confession, this dual use of Messiah/Christ[2] and Son of God among the people of Galilee and Judea there is the hope of a divinely appointed leader who will lead the people out of their captivity under the nations and reestablish them as God’s chosen people, a priestly nation and God’s treasured possession. (Exodus 19: 5-6) Peter articulates his understanding of Jesus fulfilling that role.

Jesus’ response is that God is the one who has revealed this to Peter and not humanity. What was hidden from the Pharisees and Sadducees is now revealed to the little faith ones standing before Jesus. These one of imperfect understanding and little faith will be the foundation upon which the church will be erected and which the forces of Hades will not be able to overcome. Matthew’s gospel does understand that there are forces that will be opposed to the coming kingdom of heaven, and to the community which is formed to proclaim that kingdom but ultimately what God reveals to the faithful ones is enough to keep the community on solid rock.

The name Peter means rock, and so underneath this declaration of Peter (Petros) as the rock (petra) that Christ will build his church upon is a wordplay on Peter’s name. Historically the church has wrestled with whether the church was founded on Peter as a person (traditional Roman Catholic position where Peter becomes the first bishop of the church and the church is handed down from him to future leaders) or on the profession of faith (traditional Protestant perspective) but ultimately both the person and the profession matter. Peter as a person can no longer be separated from his role as a disciple of Jesus, and his life is tied up in his profession of who Jesus is. The identity of Jesus will become crucial for the way his life, and the life of his fellow disciples, will be lived. Although he may be Simon son of Jonah, his identity is completely transformed to become Peter the rock among the disciples of Jesus. We will shortly see the way Peter’s understanding of this will be challenged by Jesus and this Son of Jonah will learn what the sign of Jonah (see previous section) will mean for his life.

The keys to the kingdom mentioned in this section have also been historically limited to the understanding of forgiveness of sins within the church, but I don’t think that is what Matthew intends for us to hear. Sin is never mentioned in this context, and while this is echoed in 18: 18 within the context of when someone in the community of faith sins against another, I think this highly limits the impact of what Jesus is referring to. As Jesus proclaims the nearness of the kingdom of heaven and grants his followers the ‘keys to the kingdom,’ I think he intends for them to understand they now have the agency to do the things he has done. Just as I believe he intended to give the disciple the opportunity to release (loose) the daughter of the Canaanite woman, I think the context tells us that they now have the agency not only resist but to bind the forces that approach from the gates of Hades and to release those in captivity to those forces. The things that they do upon the earth will be enacted by the forces of heaven.

Yet, this identity of Jesus is not to be proclaimed from the rooftops at this point. Jesus commands them not to tell anyone he is the Messiah, and this may be due to the way even the disciples can misunderstand what this title will mean. They will be charged to continue to follow him as he turns toward Jerusalem where his title will be proclaimed from a cross instead of a crown. While they understand in part and they know in part, they are on a journey to understand more completely. These little faith ones will be the foundation of the church of Christ which will go to all the nations with the proclamation of Christ and him crucified.

[1] Compare the language of John in Matthew 3: 2, 7-10 with the language of Jesus in 4:17, 12:34, and 23:33

[2] Christ and Messiah are the same term in different language. Christ is the transliteration of the Greek Christos which translates the Hebrew masiah. Both terms mean anointed one, referring to the anointing of a king when they begin their office.

Matthew 11: 1-15 Jesus and John the Baptist: Identity, Time and Authority

Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Salome, Guernico (1591-1666)

Matthew 11: 1-15

Parallel Luke 7: 18-28

1 Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 Let anyone with ears listen!

Jesus concludes the instructions for his disciples, and we return to narrative where we are again confronted with the question of Jesus’ identity and authority. In chapters eight and nine we were drawn in a rhythm of stories of acts of power which disclosed Jesus’ identity and authority combined with stories interjected which point to the character of discipleship under Jesus. After Jesus completes his instructions for his disciples his encounter with a group of John’s disciples returns us to the reflections upon Jesus’ identity in chapter eleven which will use language strikingly similar to some other New Testament authors and link into themes in Paul (in this section), John (in the next section) and again Paul (in the final section). While Matthew may not develop these themes in the same what that Paul or John will it does at least allude to some common language and understandings about Jesus’ identity already being present in the time of the compilation of Matthew’s gospel and continues to point to Jesus’ identity being greater than even a title like Messiah (or Christ) can encompass.

The opening verse of chapter eleven transitions us from the instruction to narrative in a pattern commonly used in Matthew’s gospel (see also 7:27; 13:53; 19:1 and 26:1). The language of this transition is also similar to the language that Deuteronomy narrates Moses using at the end of each of his teaching of the twelve tribes of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:1, 31:24 and 32:45) and further heightens the connection between the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve disciples.  The translation of the Greek teleo here as ‘finished’ is appropriate and contrasts to the normal translation of the same term in Matthew 5:48 as ‘perfect’ which I address at length in that section. The word translated ‘instruction’ (Greek diatasso) has a firmer sense of commanding, ordering or directing and it reinforces the position of Jesus as one to give orders and to send out these followers into the prepared fields for harvest. Jesus may have completed giving instructions to his disciples, but he now moves towards the continued proclamation of the kingdom of heaven and teaching about how to live as a community under that kingdom to the cities on his journey.

Jesus has sent forth his disciples but in the presence of the crowds he receives the disciples of John who come to him and question his identity. John has heard in prison of what Jesus is doing, and the words behind the ‘what the Messiah is doing’ is literally the work of Christ (Greek erga tou Christou). Christ and Messiah are the same word (Messiah is the transliterated Hebrew and Christ is the transliterated Greek) and it refers to one who is anointed to rule. While Christ or Messiah or the Latin Rex all refer to kingship and John the Baptist’s reference to the work of the Christ probably indicates an understand Jesus in terms of the awaited king to reestablish the Davidic line and bring about the renewal of Israel. Yet, the works that Jesus is doing is not the work of a warrior king, like David, (at least not against the armies of Rome) but rather there is a different quality to the work of Jesus. John’s query through his disciples asking, “are you the one?” provides another query into the identity of Jesus and its meaning.

Jesus’ answer refers to the works narrated in chapters eight and nine, but their form also points back to language of Isaiah, particularly 35: 5-6:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy.  Isaiah 35: 5-6a

Being the Messiah or the Son of David is redefined in terms of healing rather than military conflict. In fact, the opposition to the kingdom of heaven’s approach will be by those who use violence to bring about peace. The kingdom of heaven is not the violently maintained Pax Romana which is enforced (often brutally) by the legions of the empire or the kings and rulers of the various provinces of the empire. The Christ as embodied by Jesus embodies both the characteristics of a prophet like Elijah or Elisha (who would heal and even raise the dead), a Moses who can give instructions to the nation of Israel but also a king with authority.

Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples ends in another beatitude, like the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, where “blessed (happy) is anyone who takes no offense at me.” As I mentioned when discussing the beatitudes in Matthew 5, this takes us into the rhythm of wisdom literature where one is ‘blessed’ to be like the saying illustrates. Wisdom is going to be introduced in our next section, but here we are also by the Greek skandalizo which is the verbal form of skandalon used by Paul, for example in 1 Corinthians 1: 23:

but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block (skandalon-scandal) to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.

Paul will in 1 Corinthians allude to the wisdom of God, which is Christ crucified, and as we will see as the conversation continues between Jesus and the crowd we will also be brought into an identification with Jesus and the character of wisdom. Here it is worth having one’s ear open to the identity being alluded to as Jesus redefines the expectations of Messiah initially in terms of healing and then highlighting the ‘offense’ that will cause many to choose the path of foolishness rather than wisdom.

As John’s disciples depart Jesus returns to the crowd to talk about the identity of John by extension his own identity. Jesus rhetorically negative responses about what the people went into the wilderness to encounter John the Baptist is a pretty direct jab at Herod Antipas. A reed shaken by the wind probably alludes to the coinage Herod Antipas issued which uses reeds on them. Reeds are common in Israel and while they are blown about by the wind because they are unreliable for strength. Jesus may be referring to the way Herod Antipas was ‘battered’ by John’s prophetic condemnation of his relationship with Herodias. This is sharpened by the ‘soft robes’ description. The word ‘soft’ can also be translated ‘effeminate’ which would be a strong criticism indeed in the ancient world. Herod is subtly accused of being weak, unreliable and non-masculine. John the Baptist is the contrast to Herod Antipas (even though he is imprisoned by him) and his role is that of a prophet and specifically the prophet sent to prepare the way.

Matthew uses scripture to point us to the identity of Jesus in surprising ways. Here he uses the same passage Mark quotes in relation to John the Baptist (see Mark 1:2 where Mark misquotes this as Isaiah). The reference is to Malachi 3: 1:

See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.

The use of Malachi is important because it is the end of Malachi where the hope for a return of Elijah comes:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. Malachi 4: 5-6

John the Baptist’s identity is linked to Elijah who prepares the way for the coming of the LORD, the God of Israel, and by at least allusion Jesus is linked to the LORD. Messiah as a title is insufficient for who Jesus is in Matthew’s gospel. It, like the Son of David, Son of God, and Son of Man it points to a portion of Jesus’ identity but ultimately needs to be redefined in the terms of the ‘works of the Messiah.’ John the Baptist may be greater than any who came before him, but in the dawning kingdom of heaven even the least of its citizens are now greater than John for they are a part of a new thing. The crowd hearing the proclamation of Jesus stand at a critical time for they are seeing what the prophets and the law and John the Baptist all prepared the way for. What they are seeing and hearing is the fulfillment of the prophetic and covenantal hope of Israel.

Verse twelve and thirteen can be read multiple ways. The NRSV renders ‘the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came.’ In translating this there are two significant issues: first in the kingdom of heaven’s ‘suffering violence and being taken by force’ and secondly in the sense the prophets and the law ‘prophesied until John came.’ The first passage the Greek biazetai kai biastai arpazoousin auten is behind this phrase. Biazetai and biastai are a related verb and noun. While the NRSV’s translation of third person singular passive biazaetai as ‘has suffered violence’ is the traditional rendering of a verb that indicates entering by force it can also mean that the kingdom of heaven has entered forcefully or entered in power and in resistance to that power violent men have tried to force their way into the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven does come in power as illustrated by the healings and Jesus’ authority of sin, the demonic, creation and even death demonstrated in the previous chapters, but it will not be established by violence. There are conflicting visions between those who are looking to Jesus in terms of a traditional king or emperor whose peace is maintained by military force. Jesus himself will be seized by violent men and they will attempt to maintain their power through their violence. There is a conflict between the kingdom of heaven and those violent men who maintain the kingdoms of the earth, and the kingdom of heaven is not powerless, but it will not respond like a king or emperor. The second translational issue is whether the law and prophets have ceased their function after John came and that prophesy is at an end. I would keep the Greek word order and render the phrase ‘the law and the prophets up to John prophesied.’ There is a temporal aspect to this Greek phrase but the way the English rearranges the words in the NRSV can be read as John the Baptist bringing an end to prophecy where the Greek simply states that those who came before John and including John prophesied.

Moving back out of the translational reeds we do have in this exchange between the disciples of John, the crowds and Jesus a continued reflection on who John the Baptist is and by extension who Jesus is. John the Baptist, for those willing to hear is Elijah, and Jesus is the one for whom Elijah is preparing the way. Messiah or Christ as it is applied to Jesus needs to be understood in relations to the ‘works of the Messiah’ demonstrated by Jesus. The kingdom that Jesus proclaims and reigns over is not a kingdom created by violent men like the conquests by David or Caesar, but it is not without power. Its power may seem like foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews in Paul’s language. Continuing in Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians and preparing us for the next section this ‘Christ Jesus, who became for us the wisdom of God’ is the Jesus who will be the one crucified by violent men is also the one in whom this paradoxical power of the kingdom of heaven resides. This power that allows, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

 

 

Psalm 2 – The LORD’s Messiah

  Psalm 2

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?
 2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and his anointed, saying,
 3 “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”
 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.
 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,
 6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
 7 I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me,
“You are my son; today I have begotten you.
 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.
 11 Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling
 12 kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way;
for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.
  

Psalms 1 and 2 introduce the Psalter and while Psalm 1 highlights one of the major foci of the Jewish people, God’s law the Torah, Psalm 2 focuses on the Messiah, the Davidic King.  Perhaps this Psalm was at one point used in coronations or in some other ritual setting within the nation of Israel or later the kingdom of Judah, and it reflects back upon some mystical time when Israel was an empire that ruled over vassal kings. There is an idealization of the dominion and power of the Davidic kingship which reached its peak under Solomon and would from that point forward be a small kingdom caught among the rise and falls of empires in Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Even with the focus on the Lord’s anointed (literally the Lord’s messiah) the focus, as through out the Psalter, is taking refuge in the Lord.

For Christians this is one of the Psalms that has often been read through the image of Jesus, particularly verse 7 “You are my son; today I have begotten you” and while Christians should not forget that this Psalm originally refers back to a Davidic king part of the living witness of scriptures allows people to hear the words echoed in a new way in a new era. Yet if one is going to listen to this Psalm in terms of Jesus one does have to wrestle with the militaristic language of verse 9 (You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel) and yet this is not that much different from some of the triumphal language lifted up by Paul and others in the New Testament.

Bible paintings in the Castra center, Haifa-Samuel Annointing David and David and Goliath

Bible paintings in the Castra center, Haifa-Samuel Annointing David and David and Goliath

 

Psalm 1 and 2 taken together lift up the Torah and the Davidic King as two of the foci of the way of life outlined within the meditations contained within the Psalter and yet both Torah and King are to point back to the LORD. The linkage at the beginning of Psalm 1 (Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked) and the end of Psalm 2 (Happy are those who take refuge in him) joins the king and the law together as ways in which God establishes God’s rule among God’s people. As in many of the other Psalms the LORD will laugh at the movements of the nations and empires and for a nation that frequently found itself under duress from other kings and rulers perhaps this Psalm was its own revelation of God’s rule in, with and under the movements of the kings and empires around them. Perhaps like King Arthur for the Anglo-Saxon time it reflects back to the time of the once and future king, the one who was a ‘man after God’s own heart.’ To a simpler or perhaps better time. Perhaps it is a part of the imagination and story that allows the people to maintain their identity in the midst of dispersion and exile, of disillusioned hopes of rebuilding the temple and their loss of power and status in the world. Perhaps this was one more way in which they were able to see the shade pulled back and trust that the LORD was the one who was in control rather than the other gods and lords and powers. And perhaps it is wise to remember that the Psalter is poetry which attempts to express truth that transcends the situation that the people may have found themselves in. Or perhaps a more cynical approach would look at this as a form of self-aggrandizement of the Davidic kings, granting themselves divine authority and  granting themselves a position of ‘sons of God’ in a way that the Caesars in Rome would later do in a different way.

I choose to read this in a non-cynical way. I am certainly influenced by the post-modern hermeneutic of suspicion but at a certain level I have had to learn to trust. To let the words wash over and to listen deeply for the wisdom in the poetry. The God of the Hebrew people, the same God the Christian people would come to know, was deeply involved in the world. Politics and power were not separate things but a part of the engaged and sacred reality of their God who engaged the world.  A God who can laugh at the movement of armies and empires and who is their refuge and strength as Psalm 46 and other places will remind them. Who when the kings of the earth seem to be taking counsel against the chosen people in Zion or in all times and places throughout the world, who still reigns and holds those who rebel against God’s rule in derision. The one who reads and approaches and meditates on the Psalter as a way of understanding how God approached them in the earth find the blessedness (happiness) by taking refuge in this hope, this poetry and this narrative.

 

Jeremiah 23-A Righteous Branch and Unrighteous Prophets

Jeremiah 23: 1-7: The Righteous Branch

rootofjessebranch

1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. 2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. 3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.
5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
7 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, “As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,” 8 but “As the LORD lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.” Then they shall live in their own land.

Anyone who reads Jeremiah has to make educated guesses about the context that Jeremiah is writing to, especially when the time period is not made explicit. I see this as an extension of what comes before at the end of chapter 22 which is addressing the beginning of the exile (the first exile where the leadership is taken into exile but the people are left primarily in the land) in the time of Jechoniah and so this passage comes very late in the story of Jeremiah. The chapter verse delineations in scripture come much later and probably reflect an effort to highlight the messianic hope of this passage rather than see it buried at the end of a long chapter of judgment against the king, yet this passage probably belongs as an extension of chapter 22. Rabbi Lau has a different perspective, that it comes much earlier in the time of Josiah and contrasts between Josiah and the local leaders of his time (Lau, 2013, p. 28ff.) but this is an area where I think both Walter Brueggemann and Patrick Miller, who I have been reading as I have gone through Jeremiah, are correct. (Brueggemann, 1998, p. 205) (Elizabeth Actemeir, et. al., 1994, p. VI:744)

The themes of these verses are full of echoes throughout the prophets and in the gospels as well. The verses about the shepherds and the ways they have not been faithful is echoed in Ezekiel 34:
2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them– to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 As I live, says the Lord GOD, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
10 Thus says the Lord GOD, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. 11 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out Ezekiel 34: 2-11
And is echoed in John chapter 10 where Jesus talks about being the good shepherd in contrast to the previous shepherd, or in Mark 6: 34 where the people are discussed as sheep without a shepherd. Here in Jeremiah at the end of verse four the promise is for a new and faithful shepherd who will come. After a long passage of judgment now comes the hope of the coming days.
Again the passage about the righteous branch has echoes in other places as well, for example in Isaiah 11:
A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Isaiah 11:1
And the hope is that out of the defunct lineage of David which seems to be coming to an end that the God of Israel will maintain the commitment to the line of David and from that line will raise up a righteous branch who will live out of the vision of the Lord’s peace. And the renewal that the Lord will bring will make even the paradigmatic event of the Jewish people’s story, the Exodus, take second place to the new renewal that the Lord will do when the people are returned from exile. This is a story of hope for at least two sets of people: for the Jewish people it was a hope of renewal and return with a righteous and faithful king where God would gather from all the lands of the diaspora God’s people once again, and for Christians is also is an image of hope for from the story of Jesus we cannot help but hear that story in the hope of the righteous branch that arises out of the line of David. One passage can bring hope in two different ways, and hearing the hope of one another should also help us to see our dependence upon the Hebrew Scriptures to understand the life and ministry and hope of Jesus and his followers.

Jeremiah 23: 9-40: The Failure of the Prophets

The Breaking of Jeremiah's Yoke by Hananiah, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Amiens, France

The Breaking of Jeremiah’s Yoke by Hananiah, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Amiens, France

9 Concerning the prophets:
My heart is crushed within me, all my bones shake;
I have become like a drunkard, like one overcome by wine,
because of the LORD and because of his holy words.
10 For the land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land mourns,
and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up.
Their course has been evil, and their might is not right.
11 Both prophet and priest are ungodly;
even in my house I have found their wickedness, says the LORD.
12 Therefore their way shall be to them like slippery paths in the darkness,
into which they shall be driven and fall;
for I will bring disaster upon them in the year of their punishment, says the LORD.
13 In the prophets of Samaria I saw a disgusting thing:
they prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray.
14 But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a more shocking thing:
they commit adultery and walk in lies;
they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from wickedness;
all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.
15 Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts concerning the prophets:
“I am going to make them eat wormwood, and give them poisoned water to drink;
for from the prophets of Jerusalem ungodliness has spread throughout the land.”
16 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. 17 They keep saying to those who despise the word of the LORD, “It shall be well with you”; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, “No calamity shall come upon you.”
18 For who has stood in the council of the LORD so as to see and to hear his word?
Who has given heed to his word so as to proclaim it?
19 Look, the storm of the LORD! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest;
it will burst upon the head of the wicked.
20 The anger of the LORD will not turn back
until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind.
In the latter days you will understand it clearly.
21 I did not send the prophets, yet they ran;
I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied.
22 But if they had stood in my council,
then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way,
and from the evil of their doings.
23 Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? 24 Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD. 25 I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” 26 How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back– those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? 27 They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. 28 Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the LORD. 29 Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? 30 See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the LORD, who steal my words from one another. 31 See, I am against the prophets, says the LORD, who use their own tongues and say, “Says the LORD.” 32 See, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, says the LORD, and who tell them, and who lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or appoint them; so they do not profit this people at all, says the LORD.
33 When this people, or a prophet, or a priest asks you, “What is the burden of the LORD?” you shall say to them, “You are the burden, and I will cast you off, says the LORD.” 34 And as for the prophet, priest, or the people who say, “The burden of the LORD,” I will punish them and their households. 35 Thus shall you say to one another, among yourselves, “What has the LORD answered?” or “What has the LORD spoken?” 36 But “the burden of the LORD” you shall mention no more, for the burden is everyone’s own word, and so you pervert the words of the living God, the LORD of hosts, our God. 37 Thus you shall ask the prophet, “What has the LORD answered you?” or “What has the LORD spoken?” 38 But if you say, “the burden of the LORD,” thus says the LORD: Because you have said these words, “the burden of the LORD,” when I sent to you, saying, You shall not say, “the burden of the LORD,” 39 therefore, I will surely lift you up and cast you away from my presence, you and the city that I gave to you and your ancestors. 40 And I will bring upon you everlasting disgrace and perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten.

First the critique goes towards the ruling elite, the shepherds, the king but now it turn on the religious authorities and in particular the other prophets. There are several points in the book of Jeremiah where we hear about other prophets who are proclaiming a different message than Jeremiah is called to proclaim and the people hear different religious authorities proclaiming a very different message, or more likely they hear Jeremiah as a voice that is so different from the message others are saying that he goes unheard. In giving the people a false message they have prevented the people from having a realistic hope of turning. The narratives from the political and religious elites are going in the opposite direction of the proclamation given to Jeremiah. They proclaim an unconditional peace which serves the people rather than the covenantal shalom which calls the people to live in justice.
Perhaps these other prophets feel compelled to live into their roles, prophets are supposed to have a message from the Lord, dreams to dreams and visions to tell and so in the absence of these visions they have kept up the appearance, or perhaps the prophets have been coopted into the royal and priestly power systems to be additional mouthpieces for these authorities. Whatever the case they have failed in their calling, according to Jeremiah they are producing only lies and false visions and they are leading the people astray. They have become worse than the prophets of northern Israel which led Israel to worship Baal, for they perhaps are constructing a misleading image of the Lord. God’s judgment is on the prophets who have misled the people. Their condemnation will be harsher, everlasting disgrace and perpetual shame, and unlike the promise of a righteous branch that will arise out of the stump of Jesse, there is no promise for the prophets-they are also to be cast out of the city.

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