Do you cry easily? I admit to being pretty stoic and I blame my Scandinavian ancestry for being so tear-deficient. I remember my Norwegian grandfather scolding me as a child for crying and telling me that big boys don’t do that. I sucked it up and have been holding it in quite a bit ever since. That is most evident when Leroy and I are watching a sad movie that reduces him to a puddle and I just reach into my pocket and hand him another Kleenex. I can think of some significant moments in my life, though, where I have not sniffled and wiped a tear but when emotion has burst forth in messy and uncontrolled weeping. So it’s not that I don’t ever cry; I just haven’t found a happy medium.
Jeremiah is called the “weeping prophet.” The passage we read from Jeremiah 8 exemplifies his grief: “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!”
Jeremiah might be the weeping prophet in chapter 8, but he was a more typical prophet in prior chapters. There he yelled and admonished and shamed and otherwise expressed his anger and deep disappointment in the people of Israel. God had called Jeremiah as a young man, despite Jeremiah’s great reluctance, to urge people to stop flirting with other religions and political leaders who were leading them astray. Jeremiah prophesied for about thirty years before everything was lost in the fall of Jerusalem to Nebachudrezzar around 600 BC. The City of David and the center for worship for all Israelites was overtaken and they were exiled to a place where God’s chosen were nobodies. Jeremiah and other prophets saw this coming and still hoped that disaster would be prevented if people just heard the right message and used their good sense to right their ways.
When the future was still up for grabs, Jeremiah preached and prodded and ultimately collapsed in a pool of tears when he realized the hopelessness of the situation. Reason didn’t seem to be working. People were carried away by their fears and selfishness and the belief that they had better plans for their lives than God.
So Jeremiah wept. And he asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? (Is there a doctor in the house?!) Why has the health of my poor people not been restored?” The words “balm” and “bomb” sound pretty much alike but couldn’t be more different. Today when we hear of bombings in the region of Gilead, just east of the Jordan River, we are reminded that peace has always been very fragile in that part of the world. The “balm” Jeremiah spoke of is probably a sap that came from balsam trees common in Gilead. He longed for that balm to cover the wounds of a people who kept striving against God and kept hurting themselves in the process. He wondered what physician could ever cure the ills of a nation that had become self-serving at the expense of its most vulnerable.
When I read Jeremiah’s question, “Why has the health of my poor people not been restored?” I think about those in our own nation whose health is compromised and whose access to health care is severely limited. I feel very fortunate that I can go to the doctor whenever I need to without worrying who will pay for the visit or for any needed treatment. I have had good health insurance my whole life and I don’t personally know what it’s like to have to choose between medical care for myself and food for my children. It seems to me that in the national and state-wide discussions about health care, it’s those who don’t have to worry about it who are making most of the decisions. As a result, creating change to benefit the poor has been next to impossible. The prophets like Jeremiah and Amos in the Hebrew Scriptures would have had some choice words about that. Amos, in particular, called on God’s people to see poverty as the prime justice issue of that day and to advocate fiercely for those whose voice wasn’t being heard. “Why hasn’t the health of the poor been restored?”
Jeremiah was like Amos in his pronouncements against the greedy. The difference is that the stubbornness of the people ultimately broke his heart. After years of railing against injustice, he finally took a moment to step back and feel the weight of what the people were carrying day after day. For the first time, instead of just being angry he began to identify with them. He saw the hopelessness in their eyes and he heard the words that expressed the longings that often led them in counterproductive directions. He said, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” I wonder how often we are heartsick for those who frustrate us with their greed and disregard for the poor? I wonder how often we mourn for those whose political commitments are at odds with our own beliefs about what is just and right? Jeremiah’s response to the people is quite remarkable. His anger finally gave way to compassion. While he considered the actions of the people deplorable and realized that many were not likely to change their ways, he took within himself their own pain. He longed for them to be healed of the diseases that misshaped their souls.
I was grateful to be part of the Pine Ridge Team in South Dakota. I had read about Wounded Knee, but it wasn’t until I stood on that sacred ground and heard the stories of women and men and children massacred, told by their descendants, that I began to feel the horror of that blight on our nation’s history. Throughout our visit to Pine Ridge, I witnessed the social ills and spiritual wounds that have continued from generation to generation. I heard first-hand the ongoing effects of the boarding schools, and I felt the distrust and anger that neighbors have toward one another. They have been systematically stripped of their land, culture, and faith, and they have often turned against one another; perhaps because they have been isolated by their victimizers. Are we able to put their pain in our hearts so that justice will someday triumph over years of destruction?
Jeremiah was a reluctant prophet, but once he found his voice and used it boldly to list all of the faults he saw in the people, it almost seems as though he enjoyed it. It must have been a big ego boost to be selected by God for that purpose. He didn’t hold back. He scolded and cajoled and no doubt congratulated himself often that he wasn’t on the receiving end of the criticism. It’s easy to judge others. There is a fine line between identifying social evils and harboring delight in our own relative goodness. If we cross over from compassion to hatred regarding those who offend us, we aren’t very far ahead of those values we oppose. Jeremiah narrowly avoided falling into that trap. He finally saw people for who they were: vulnerable human beings. And he wept for them.
Is there a balm in Gilead? Is there a physician in the house? Yes. The God who stuck with Israel through faithlessness and exile is the same God who hears our cries. God’s desire for justice for the poor and peace between and within nations is even greater than our own. May we be a balm - a soothing salve – for one another as we join together to heal this world. Amen.