ALL THE KING’S MEN
Jeremiah starts out our lesson for today by lamenting how the shepherds have destroyed and scattered the sheep of God’s pasture. “Woe to you shepherds who have scattered my flock, have driven them away, and have not attended to them,” says Jeremiah. The term “shepherds” in this context is a metaphor for the kings of Judah and Israel who are the nemesis of Jeremiah’s prophetic confrontation. Except for King Josiah, all of the kings with whom Jeremiah had a relationship during his lifetime did what was evil in the sight of God and failed to execute justice and righteousness throughout their land. Consequently, Jeremiah had just cause to hold these kings accountable for their unfaithfulness, and to warn them of the impending consequences if they continued to act contrary to God’s will. As you listen this morning to a description about the plight of the Judaic people under the rule of these kings, you might want to make the connection with our current political and economic situation because not much has changed in 2700 years.
When Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet, Josiah was the king who ruled over the land of Judah. While in office, Josiah attempted to correct many of the terrible policies and practices that had been instituted by the kings of Judah before him. With the aid of his supporters, Josiah was able to eliminate most of the cultic practices affiliated with the worship of false gods, including the practice of child sacrifice. He also abolished the royal tax, instituted the cancellation of debts and the release of slaves, made conscription into the king’s military more selective, and reduced the size of the military in order to relieve the people of such a financial burden. Unfortunately, with the sudden death of Josiah in the throes of battle, all of the kings who succeeded Josiah did what was evil in the sight of God and the economic and social dimensions of Josiah’s reforms soon faded into the past.
These kings would gather men around them who not only would serve as their advisors, but also would serve as the priests and the prophets of their royal court. Consequently, the royal priests would establish religious policies and practices that would endorse and support the ways of the kings who were viewed as being rulers who could do no wrong because supposedly they were agents of God Yahweh. The prophets chosen by these kings would tell the people that everything would be just fine throughout the land, when, in fact, people were suffering and dying as the result of the king’s decisions and actions. The wealthy landowners also were strong supporters of these kings because they were the ones who benefited the most from the laws that were established by the kings who did what was evil in the sight of God.
Once Josiah had been killed and the kings who followed him restored most of the unjust and violent ways of the kings who had preceded Josiah, Jeremiah’s role as a prophet of God Yahweh kicked into high gear, not only in pointing out the unrighteous and unjust ways of these kings, but also in addressing the royal priests and prophets, and the wealthy landowners and merchants, and exposing their complicity in oppressing the widows, the orphans, the slaves, and the sojourners throughout the land.
According to Jeremiah, the kings ultimately were responsible for everything that was going on throughout Judah that would be contrary to God’s will. Given this caveat, according to Jeremiah’s own words, the wealthy landowners had become rich and grown fat and sleek by taking over the land of those who were less fortunate and forcing them into slavery. They made their neighbors work for nothing and did not give them their wages. Consequently, they built their houses by unrighteousness and their upper rooms by injustice because their eyes were only on their unjust gain.
The royal prophets prophesied false dreams in order to make the king look good in the eyes of the people. They led the people astray by their lies and their recklessness crying out “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace throughout the land. Similarly, the priests encouraged the people to burn offerings to false gods and did not lead the people in keeping the Sabbath Day. As far as Jeremiah was concerned, these prophets and priests did not speak honestly, dealt falsely with the people, and were ungodly.
Of course, the kings received the brunt of Jeremiah’s critique because the kings did not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, did not defend the rights of the needy, and did not inquire of God in terms of how to govern the people. Any attempts that they did make to stand before God were a sham. They declared that everything was well when it was not. They shed innocent blood, practiced oppression, and did violence to their own people. Any prophet who challenged the ways of the king pretty much could count on being killed by the king.
All of this unrighteousness and injustice was made worse by the fact that the kings, the priests, the royal prophets, and the wealthy landowners refused to be ashamed for what they were doing to their own people. As Jeremiah says, “Those who do wrong do not know how to blush.” They showed no contrition or fear of God, and would not repent of their wickedness. Meanwhile, they tried to put the blame on God for all that was wrong throughout their land, and make God Yahweh out to be the one responsible for all of their woes.
Walter Brueggemann, in his book, “The Prophetic Imagination,” describes the role and responsibilities of prophets like Jeremiah. Prophets are people who nurture and evoke a consciousness and perception that serves as an alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture in the land. Prophets help the people to see the connection between the religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation. Prophets have the responsibility to cut through the numbness that the people are feeling and to penetrate the self-deception of the king.
As Brueggemann indicates, denial is the great sin of a king who wants to maintain control over the people by keeping up the pretense that everything is alright and that there is no need for any real criticism or grief. Rulers who like to dominate cannot tolerate serious and fundamental criticism, and will go to great lengths to stop it. When a king who does what is evil in the sight of God claims to be the necessary agent of God’s ultimate purpose, the people have every reason to be afraid and to grieve. At one point in this profound book, Brueggemann points out that Jeremiah is a good example of a prophet who knows how to grieve and lament.
Jesus has this same capacity as we hear in our gospel lesson for today, because he is living in a time not unlike the time of Jeremiah when the Roman governors were doing everything that they could to keep the people in line, when wealthy landowners were keeping the vast majority of people in poverty, and when the religious leaders were more concerned about their pious rituals than the plight of their own people. As a good prophet does, Jesus came along, looks at the great crowd of people, and has compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd—that is, without a ruler who has their best interest in mind.
Brueggemann points out that compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, because compassion announces that the hurt in a society is to be taken seriously and that the hurt that the people are experiencing due to the oppression and violence of the king is not to be accepted as normal and natural, but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanity. The one thing that the dominant culture cannot tolerate or co-opt is compassion—the ability to stand in solidarity with the victims of the present order. The dominant culture can manage charity and good intentions, but it has no way to resist solidarity with the pain and grief for which it is responsible.
Jesus’ compassion extended to all of the people who were sick and sought him out to be healed. As we hear today, “Wherever Jesus went, into villages or cities or farms, the people laid the sick in the market places, and begged Jesus that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak. And all who touched it were healed.” Looking beyond the miracle of these physical healings, every person that Jesus healed also was another form of criticism of the religious institution of his day because the people were taught that their sickness was the direct result of their sinfulness for which they had to make animal sacrifices as sin offerings. Consequently, every person that Jesus healed meant that much less business for the animal sellers and money changers who were ripping off the people and much less income for the religious establishment that benefitted the most from this pietistic sacrificial system. Jesus was a source of hope for these people not only because of their physical healing, but also because of the economic liberation that they could experience as the result of being healed by Jesus.
According to Brueggemann, offering hope to the people is one of the primary idioms of a true prophet—not the false hope that royal prophets like to espouse, but the real hope that we do not have to accept the reading of reality that is being perpetuated by all of the king’s men who are motivated by their own pride, fear, and greed. In contrast, Jesus entered this world and modeled for all of us an alternative way—the way of humility, love, and generosity, grounded in a compassion that he held within his being for all people even as we witness in his prayer on the cross, when he said, “God, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Jeremiah offers this same kind of hope to his people today as he speaks on behalf of God Yahweh, and says, “I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where they have been driven, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up faithful shepherds for them so that they will have no need to be afraid or be dismayed. The shepherds that I raise up for the people will deal wisely with them and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days, your nation will be saved and everyone will be able to live in safety because I am a God of righteousness.” In this same hope for our corporate future as a nation, let us all give thanks and praise to this God of just and right relationships as revealed in Jesus, our Savior. Amen.