This first reading from the prophet Jeremiah is a beautiful piece of poetry, but the tragedy and calamity it expresses is beyond help. We are fond of reminding ourselves and others that as bad as things might get God will have mercy, forgive and restore if we return to him. At this unfortunate moment in the history of Israel, however, God Himself declares that it is too late: nothing can spare this generation from destruction. Jeremiah, faced with this revelation, does not abandon his lament and plea for mercy. “We recognize, O Lord, our wickedness, the guilt of our fathers, that we have sinned against you. For your name’s sake, spurn us not, disgrace not the throne of your mercy, remember your covenant with us and break it not.” – The response of the Lord comes in the following passage, “The LORD said to me: Even if Moses and Samuel stood before me, my heart would not turn toward this people. Send them away from me and let them go.1
Guilt, sin, wrongdoing, injustice, infidelity, all have been accumulating – every generation passing on to the next the sins of the fathers. Then, as the fullness of time is reached, God himself removes the sin no man or woman could avoid contracting. In the sterile womb of a woman who begged fruitfulness not just for herself and her husband, but for a people crying to God to “forget the iniquities of the past”, is conceived a pure creature. This pure creature, a tiny girl, is the new source from which the fountain of redeemed human life will flow. Sts. Anne and Joachim bring the cause of hope into a world destined for destruction. They are no longer victims of the past sins of their fathers, the sin of their first parents Adam and Eve – their hearts are converted to the hope of their child who is the first to be spared and redeemed. They are saints, not because of what they did, but because of how their hearts were transformed by a true child: Mary, the new Eve.
Today’s Gospel invites us further to consider true childhood, and our response to the evil that comes up around us. The evil that is outside ourselves, once we can recognize it as such, will be left to grow until the harvest. We must learn how to continue to grow without being phased. Tares and wheat look nearly identical when they are small – when they have grown enough to tell the difference, it is too late to safely remove the tares. If we recognize ourselves as tares, St. Augustine is quick to encourage us, God can transform us into wheat. Our part in cooperating with that transformation and grace is to return to the simpler beginnings – what it means to be a true child – to a state anterior to the characteristics of tares.
Being born again is the mysterious power we have received as children of God. It is not the same as becoming childish, infantile or the nostalgia for innocence which cannot be recovered. Being born again is recreation – and that plunges us into our future and our destiny whenever we enact it. St. John says in the prologue to his Gospel, “to all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gave power to become children of God. They are born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
How do we use our power to become children of God? Can one return to the womb? No, but we can lift up our hearts to the silent and invisible Creator of our souls. Prayer isn’t just words or feelings – it is the faith that directs our hearts invisibly towards the origin of our being receiving from Him not only our Creation, but our true childhood – renewing and refreshing our lives.
Jeremiah 14:1–15:9. This highly dramatic passage is made up of poems and dialogues between God and Jeremiah. It paints a picture of anguish, hunger and death—a desperate attempt to provoke repentance. “The prophet includes here a prayer to God on behalf of his chosen people, so that having punished them he will also show them his mercy” (St Thomas Aquinas, Postilla super Jeremiam, 14, 1).
What Jeremiah had been saying about the evils that would befall Jerusalem was all coming true. After the attack on the city in 597 and the deportation that ensued, the situation was terrible. The affliction suffered by the city was compounded by a terrible drought which made its plight and that of all Judah even worse (14:1–6; cf. 8:18–23). In their extremity the people cry out to God, begging him not to treat them like strangers (14:7–9). The Lord replies through his prophet, and despite Jeremiah’s attempts to excuse his fellow citizens, he does not mince his words: all these disasters are due to the faults and sins of the people (14:10–12), who made the mistake of relying on false prophets who put their minds at ease with promises of peace and prosperity (14:13–16). Jeremiah is deeply distressed by the whole situation, and he again begs God not to punish Judah (14:17–19); and the people again entreat God, their only hope (14:20–22). But the Lord has already promulgated his sentence. He will not go back on it—not even if the nation’s great mediators, Moses and Samuel, were to speak on its behalf (15:1–4; cf. Ex 32:11–14; 1 Sam 7:8–12). Its wickedness dates back a long time—certainly to the reign of Manasseh (698–642), the son of Hezekiah (15:4), who tolerated and even promoted impiety and idolatry (2 Kings 21:1–18). So, the Lord had no option but to carry out his sentence (15:5–9): Judah had “rejected” him (cf. 15:6). This last part of the oracle is very severe and shows the profound pain felt by the prophet, for there is nothing he can do to ward off this great misfortune.
The words of 15:2 (cf. 43:11) are quoted in the book of Revelation (13:10) with reference to the latter days, to exhort readers to accept the truth of God’s message and bear persecution with endurance and faith.2
At issue is the anguish of the people who turn to the Lord as their salvation in times of need, but the Lord insists that it is too late. Nothing can turn aside the destruction that will overtake them; it is the inevitable result of their apostasy. The intercession, even of Moses and Samuel, notable prophets of the past, will not work. Offering sacrifice and confessing sin will not be effective. Jeremiah’s attempt to excuse the people and blame false prophets is dismissed by the Lord, even though the Lord acknowledges that these false prophets were not personally sent by God; nevertheless the people are accountable. There is no turning the heart of the Lord away from punishment (15:1–4). The vehemence in the description of the devastation to come upon the people is offset by the recognition that the suffering of the people, however much deserved, is a personal source of grief to God (14:17).3
- New American Bible (Revised Edition, Je 15:1). (2011). The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
- Gavigan, J., McCarthy, B., & McGovern, T., eds. (2005). Major Prophets (pp. 361–362). Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers.
- Viviano, P. A. (2013). Jeremiah & Baruch (D. Durken, Ed.; Vol. 14, pp. 47–49). Liturgical Press.