False Hopes, Bad Dreams, and Reckless Lies:
Jeremiah Yesterday and Today

For Sunday August 19, 2007

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
           Isaiah 5:1–7 or Jeremiah 23:23–29
           Psalm 80:1–2, 8–19 or Psalm 82
           Hebrews 11:29–12:2
           Luke 12:49–56

Jeremiah from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel

Jeremiah from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

           Across the street from our house my neighbor's beat up Pontiac sports a clever bumper sticker: "Don't believe everything you think." That, in a nutshell, was the sober message that God called the prophet Jeremiah (650–580 BC) to speak to the religious and political leaders of his country—their prophets, priests and king. The reading for this week from Jeremiah 23:23–29 is only a snippet from a long, depressing section which in my Bible is entitled "Lying Prophets" (23:9–40), which reminds me of the comedian Al Franken's book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Only in this instance nobody was laughing.

           To the prophets, priests and kings of Judah, Jeremiah preached what sounded like an unpatriotic, seditious, and judgmental message: "Stop giving our people reckless lies and false hopes. Stop betraying them with your delusional messages of comfort and hope. National disaster is just around the corner." With biting irony and bitter sarcasm Jeremiah compared the words of Judah's false prophets to the pagan predictors of Baal. Their worship was worse than Samaria, their actions more evil than Sodom (23:13–14). He ridiculed their pseudo-prophecies as "false hopes" and "reckless lies" (23:16, 32). Like a "false dream" (23:32) they assured Judah that everything was fine, when in fact they were about to awaken to a nightmare of national destruction. To speak so bluntly, wrote Jeremiah, made his heart break and his bones tremble (23:9).

           For his twenty-three years of faithfulness to God's call (25:3), Jeremiah got what you might expect. He was beaten (20:2), received death threats (26:8), imprisoned (37:15), thrown down a well (38:6), and derided as an unpatriotic crank and traitor. Almost no one listened to him, but in the end history proved him right. In 586 BC Babylon ravaged Judah and Jerusalem, just like Jeremiah had warned, and despite all the reckless lies and false comforts of the lying prophets and priests.

           The gist of the false prophets's message was self-aggrandizement and denial: "You will have peace; no harm will come to you!" (23:17). Or in modern parlance, "our nation is an exceptional people, special to God and his purposes, so he will protect us." For Jeremiah this was a distinctly political problem of national proportions—the very survival of Israel was at stake. Anyone from any nation might legitimately try to draw parallels to their own nation today, and to expose the comforting but "reckless lies" told by leaders to lull its citizens. But don't expect people to thank you for that.

           You can just as easily move from the overtly political to the deeply personal. Every once in a while I think about our many modern day myths, truisms, and slogans, propagated by both church and culture at large, that play on my own selfishness. Jeremiah called these "reckless lies" and "false hopes." He compared them to bad dreams. The French sociologist Jacques Ellul called them "commonplaces," that is, deeply entrenched beliefs that only a curmudgeon would question, but which, unhappily, also happen to be false. Like junk food, they taste great, but in the end they will kill you.

           Here's a dozen contemporary "false hopes, bad dreams, and reckless lies " that I love to love. They're just mine, and I confess that it's only a partial list. You might try to identify today's false prophecies that hold a special attraction for you.

* I deserve perfect health and the medicine to get me there, especially given how hard I work out.
* I'm entitled to all the passionate sex that the tabloids describe and the movies depict.
* There's a solution to every problem if I pray hard enough.
* I'd be happier in a bigger house in a better location, or in a smaller house with less upkeep.
* I'd be happier in a newer house with fewer repairs, or in an older house with more charm.
* I wouldn't be such a mess if not for my family of origin.
* I'd find more fulfillment in a different job.
* My kids deserve straight teeth, the best universities, challenging jobs, financial success, model marriages. And they should make me proud.
* Wired magazine assures me of the beneficence and omnipotence of technology.
* From The Prayer of Jabez I expect "a front row seat in a life of miracles."
* I will give a little more when I get a little more. Just a little more, enough to be secure.
* Fill in the blank on sports, leisure, vacations, wealth creation, the boss, your spouse, politics, in-laws, etc.

These reckless lies and false prophecies epitomize St. Augustine's (354–430) definition of sin as "the heart curved in on itself."

Icon of Jeremiah.

Icon of Jeremiah.

           The Gospel reading for this week belies these false prophecies. "Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?" asked Jesus. "No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three" (Luke 12:51–52).

           So too from the epistle for this week. Hebrews 11:29–12:2 is just the medicine I need to combat the sickness that Jeremiah diagnosed. Normally, I read chapter 11 of Hebrews as a sort of hall of fame. True, it speaks of saints who did exploits for God, "conquering kingdoms, shutting the mouths of lions, and quenching the fury of flames" (11:33–34). But this week when I read more closely and carefully I discovered a different category of saints. Alongside these mighty saints who "gained what was promised" (11:33), there are many saints who "did not receive what had been promised" (11:13, 39). They received something far different.

           Here's how Hebrews describes the latter saints: "Others were tortured. . . . some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised" (11:35–39). These saints would have known what Jeremiah meant about false hopes and reckless lies; they would not have equated or confused their personal fortune with their Christian faith. Nor is this description an exaggeration; it could easily describe the life of a Christian under emperors like Nero or Diocletian, or for that matter Stalin or Mao.

           I've grown more circumspect in my journey with Jesus as I battle the "sweet dreams" and "reckless lies" of today's false prophets. I resonate when Kathleen Norris laments how little we like being told that conversion is a lifelong process, and not something I can cross off my to-do list next week, next month or even next year. Norris reminds me of Irena, one of my students at Moscow State University, who once remarked in class, "You Americans make being a Christian sound so simple and easy; for us Russians it's more difficult."

           For every nagging question that keeps me awake at night staring at the ceiling, St. Chrysostom (354–407) reminds me that "we do not know wholly even what is given in part, but know only a part of a part." I then rest a little easier in my ignorance. I don't like to admit it, but I find Saint Augustine's prayer true to my own experience, and oddly reassuring: "Lord Jesus, don’t let me lie when I say that I love you. . . . and protect me, for today I could betray you." It's a very short step from loving God to lying to him and to yourself. So, I honor those many believers who "did not receive the things promised," at least not in this life, and who did not succumb to the "sweet dreams and reckless lies" of false prophecy.

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, by Rembrandt.

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, by Rembrandt.

           I think we want to live Christianly somewhere between the two Bens. If you surf your cable television you will find the televangelist Benny Hinn, who peddles the "false hopes" of name it and claim it—that is, all the many promises and blessings of God are yours for the asking, here and now, just pray in faith. The lectionary text from Hebrews reminds us that the "already" of God's coming kingdom is, for now, tempered by the "not yet." At the opposite extreme, I recently read Walter Isaacson's biography of Ben Franklin. This Ben was some sort of deist. He had a firm belief in a benevolent deity, but his god was an absentee landlord who didn't stoop to dirty himself in the petty affairs of every day life. Don't expect Ben Franklin's god to intervene in your life or answer your prayers.

            Don't listen to Benny Hinn or Ben Franklin. Jeremiah would say that God's word comes to both of them like a fire to straw or a sledge hammer to rocks (23:29). Rather, whether God calls you to endure floggings or suffer torture, to tame lions or quench flames, pray to be "commended for your faith" regardless of your circumstances (Hebrews 11:39).

For further reflection:

* Can you identify some "reckless lies" that are national and political?
* What about deeply personal and private "false hopes"?
* What do you think Jesus meant about bringing division and not peace?
* Contemplate: "I am convinced that not even the apostles, although filled with the Holy Spirit, were therefore completely free from anxiety. . . . Contrary to the stupid view expressed by some, the advent of grace does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety" (St. Makarios of Egypt, 5th century).