The reading from Jeremiah (28:5-9) deserves wider context. Taking the reading by itself, one might almost think Jeremiah is agreeing with his opponent, hoping wistfully that God’s message might have changed.
Jeremiah finds himself in the position of being unpatriotic in order to be patriotic. Judah has sinned through religious syncretism and social oppression, and the prophet knows God has decreed destruction and exile. He receives the unenviable task of delivering this unpopular message to his culture. The established school of prophets reinforces the problem, prophesying the destruction of Judah’s enemies, using the same “Thus saith the Lord” formula that people are used to hearing from authentic prophets.
Jeremiah says, “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” Later, Jeremiah rebukes a false prophet: “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie” (Jer. 28:15).
Not only is Jeremiah perhaps the most unenviable of the prophets, but Judah was in an unenviable situation. Once Judah began listening to inauthentic prophets, discerning the true voice of God became more and more difficult. Both sides were saying, “Thus saith the Lord.” How can you tell which side is right? When God’s people are on both sides, how do you adjudicate faithfulness? How can you know if you have begun to trust a lie?
Jeremiah’s response points to several options. First, look to tradition. In the words of another prophet, “To the Law and to the Testimony!” (Isa. 8:20a). God will not speak or act radically beyond the range of his action in the past. There is something objective in our own day about the traditions of our faithful ancestors, even if they were not objective in their day. In G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes: our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” We might say the Communion of Saints and the Church Triumphant have only one mode of input in the debates of the Church today: the traditions that they judged were important enough to defend even to the death.
Second, Jeremiah suggests a test. Whichever prophet’s words actually come true is the true prophet. This echoes a similar test in the law of Moses (Deut. 18:22; compare to Deut. 13). To practice it requires patience and a willingness to tolerate and even welcome the other while the test proceeds, remembering from our Gospel reading that when we welcome anyone for Christ’s sake, we will by no means lose our reward.
But there is a third method of discernment, one that appears in the reading from Genesis when Abraham is called to sacrifice his only son, and appears again in the reading from Romans. The true voice of God always calls us to the battle against the sinful self. He always calls along the hard and narrow road to the cross. With St. Paul, we know the voice of God in the call to discover a freedom forged in the daily discipline of obedience. “By their fruits shall ye know them.” The fruit of the Spirit includes self-control, patience, endurance of suffering, and the willingness to sacrifice our every Isaac upon the altar of God — who sacrificed his Son to open and demonstrate the way to heaven.
Look It Up
G.K. Chesterton’s essay “The Ethics of Elfland” is in the collection Orthodoxy.
Think About It
Is a Christian called, like Jeremiah, to seem to be unfaithful for the sake of deeper faithfulness?