Saturday, July 26, 2014

By the Rivers of Babylon

The Prophet Jeremiah has occupied the Bear's lectio divina for a few weeks. It is a fascinating read.

David and Solomon's great kingdom did not survive them. Israel in the north, and Judah in the south went their separate ways. Israel was invaded by the Assyrians and much of its population deported. (Other peoples were transplanted there, and the mix would become the despised Samaritans of Jesus' day.)

Judah retained Jerusalem and the grand temple of Solomon. The worship, however, had degenerated into a mix of the worship of the true God, and various local deities. Some people even sacrificed their children by fire.

Inept foreign policy led to a destructive invasion from the north by Babylon, the hyperpower of the day. God gave a surprising and unpopular message through Jeremiah, who was only a youth at the beginning of his long ministry.

Give up. Surrender to the Babylonians. God has sent them to punish Judah for its "prostitution" with false gods.

Needless to say, this was tantamount to treason in the ears of the authorities. Jeremiah was beaten, threatened with death, and imprisoned in a muddy cistern. The scroll of his prophecies was brought before the king, who silently cut off pieces of the scroll as they were read, and dropped them into a fire. The kingdom of Judah had plans, allies. The Egyptians would save them.

The Babylonians swatted the Egyptians back, and after a long siege, Jerusalem fell. The king fled, but was captured. His retinue was executed, and then, before his eyes, his seven sons. Finally, he was blinded and taken captive to Babylon. The grand temple of Solomon, the sine qua non of worship, was looted of anything valuable, and burned. All the rich furnishings were taken off to Babylon. Even the enormous bronze "sea," borne on the backs of twelve brazen oxen, was broken up and carted away.

Anyone of any use to the Babylonians -- craftsmen, scribes, officials -- were taken into captivity.

The disaster could hardly have been more complete. The future was hopeless. Their country was ruled by puppets of a foreign empire. Much of the population was in captivity, with no prospects of ever returning. Worst of all, the temple of God had been despoiled. 

Yet Jeremiah was still speaking God's word.

Settle down, he told the captives. Buy houses, plant vineyards. faithfully serve the interests of your captors. Do not listen to false prophets who promise a speedy return. It will be seventy years before the captives return to Jerusalem.

What can we learn from Jeremiah?

  • God may strike even at His own worship to punish the unfaithful
  • our corporate sins may arouse the wrath of God
  • the innocent suffer alongside the wicked
  • false prophets may try to convince us everything is just fine
  • sometimes we need to accept things the way they are and settle in for a long wait
  • God is in control of everything -- even our enemies
  • morality -- especially our covenant faithfulness to God -- is more important than cult

Do these lessons have application to the Church's present situation? One reads Jeremiah's -- God's -- criticism of shepherds that lead the flock astray, of the degeneration of liturgy, of the slaughter of innocents, and of the false reassurances of establishment prophets, and it is hard not to find parallels.

We're fifty years into our Babylonian captivity of Vatican II. It was undoubtedly God's will, although we may not know why. Perhaps in another twenty, things will get better. Perhaps they will never get better. It is all in God's hands.

As for us, we must have a clean heart before God. As God said through Jeremiah, when God brought the people out of Egypt His primary concern was not the details of His worship, but the fundamental covenant between them, and their uprightness of behavior:

22 For I spoke not to your fathers, and I commanded them not, in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning the matter of burnt offerings and sacrifices.
23 But this thing I commanded them, saying: Hearken to my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people: and walk ye in all the way that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you. 

(Je 7:22–23). The New Revised Standard Version is usually the easiest to understand, and here is its translation:

22 For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. 23 But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.”

We must plant our vineyards and live out our lives out in the era we have been given. And yet,

UPON the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept: when we remembered Sion:
2 On the willows in the midst thereof we hung up our instruments.
3 For there they that led us into captivity required of us the words of songs. And they that carried us away, said: Sing ye to us a hymn of the songs of Sion.
4 How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land? 

(Ps 136:1–4).

We survive, but we cannot forget.

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