LIKE A BURNING FIRE

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time  

            Today’s first reading is taken from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, and it belongs to the genre of confessions – remember that term. Jeremiah is called to be a prophet as a very young man, probably even a teenager – as young as seventeen. Being so young, he is unwelcomed in most societies, and especially in a society that values the wisdom only of the elders.

            Like Jonah, he tries to run away from his prophetic role. But God insists, and Jeremiah gives in. Then, God gives him a terrible message to convey – one which is totally at odds with the culture of his time. His job is to warn Israel of its infidelity. It would be punished by Babylon.

            And, then, when that punishment comes near, he tells the people of Israel to surrender rather than to fight. Not one bit of that message is appealing to anybody – it is negative, discouraging, defeatist, depressing, a downer.

            Jeremiah is labeled as a “prophet of doom” – in fact, he is nicknamed “terror on every side” – precisely because his message is only bad news. Hence, he has “become a laughingstock” of Israel. He is mocked, rejected, marginalized, imprisoned, exiled – and most likely murdered while in exile. In the meantime, his prediction or prophecy comes true.

            It is against this background that we must hear today’s first reading. In this confession, Jeremiah vents his anger against God: “You deceived me, O Lord, and I let myself be deceived; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.” “All the day I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.” “Whenever I speak, I must cry out, violence and outrage is my message; the word of the LORD has brought me derision and reproach all the day.” “Niloko mo ako, Panginoon, nagpaloko naman ako!”

            In his frustration, Jeremiah is tempted to abandon his prophetic career. In Jeremiah, faith and doubt exist together, along with disordered desires, resistance to God, and temptations to bitterness – as they do with many of us, especially these days. But at the same time, the urge of prophecy – to speak in behalf of God – is irresistible. This serves as a primer in the formation of conscience, As Jeremiah puts it, the Word of God is “like a burning fire.” Thus, he will continue to preach.

            It is the same struggle that is reflected in Jesus’ admonition to show our love by carrying our cross. It may be the cross entailed in remaining faithful to Jesus and to his gospel values of dignity, decency and respect in spite of being ridiculed, mocked and shamed. It may be the cross entailed in performing our prophetic role of speaking out against social injustice and inequality, human rights violation, political dynasty and oligarchy, graft and corruption, abuse of the environment – in the midst of danger, threat, harassment, intimidation and persecution from the powers-that-be. It may be the cross entailed in proclaiming the Gospel of life to a society numbed by extra-judicial killings, or in preaching the Gospel of truth, justice and peace to a society tyrannized by violence and oppression. It may be the cross entailed in talking about the fear of the Lord to a nation whose leader mocks God and calls him stupid – thus, inviting trolls, bashers and bullies to gang up on us. It may be the cross entailed in facing and questioning the Catholic faithful who clap on rudeness and offensiveness, on curses and expletives, on insulting and abusive words. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

            Like Jeremiah, we can decry the present generation, our age: an age of ME-ism (everything is about ME); an age saturated by materialism and consumerism, addicted to diversions and distractions; an age in which everybody has something to say, to comment, to post, to tweet – without listening first to God’s voice; an age which has lost the sense of sin and sense of the sacred – with the mentality: “As long as it is beneficial to me, it is good”; an age in which patience and tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation have been taken out from families and relationships.

            My dear friends, if we seek Jesus or Church or faith only because we are seeking self-satisfaction, or because we need an emotional crutch or security, or because we want a solution to all our problems, we are going to be sadly disappointed. It is true that for a time that kind of faith will provide fulfillment. But the time comes when we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and give ourselves. Such times come when we wonder where God is, when prayer is difficult, and when God seems silent.

            “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  

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