Call and Response
Not long ago, a friend of mine posed a question on social media. He asked people who identify as Christian and as pro-life to explain their reasoning based in Scripture. It was a fair question, but like so many conversations with political undertones (in our often painfully binary political culture), it quickly turned to proof-texting mixed with less than charitable discourse. It is not difficult to incite outrage in a cultural climate where most everyone is angry much of the time, and if they’re not, they will be! I attempted to enter the conversation with grace and a little bit of humor, as I stated my own convictions about life (which are capable of unifying almost everyone either with or against me, depending on the general mood). I am not ashamed to admit that I am pro-all life from conception to natural death. For me, this certainly encompasses unborn life, but it extends far beyond this. I am also pro-refugee life, anti-euthanasia, anti-death penalty, and very close to pacifist. In addition, I am pro-quality of life, which means that I believe wholeheartedly that we are responsible, as followers of Jesus, to do everything we can to make sure our fellow human beings are fed, housed, clothed, safe, and holistically well (physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health all matter deeply to me). I try to maintain a consistent ethic in regard to life, and I think this is of the utmost importance, because as I listen to people on multiple sides of these issues, the accusations I hear most often include a belief that “the others” are inconsistent. But let’s be real: We all fall short.
What does this have to do with Jeremiah? If you’ve made it this far and you’re wondering if I have gone rogue and forgotten this was supposed to be a commentary and not an opinion piece, stay with me.
What do we do, as Wesleyans who hold wholeheartedly and firmly to the principle of free will, with verses like Jeremiah 4:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
There is no doubt in my mind that such a strong statement emphasizes the value God places on life, even before birth, not to mention the trust God puts in our ability to care for such life and actually bring it to fruition, but this is a call more than a demand. And so my own question becomes: Is God’s call a done deal? Well, obviously not, because there must also be a response. Jeremiah’s initial response to his call is a fairly clear: “No!” But why?
Jeremiah feels unworthy of the calling he has received. His reasoning seems a little off, if we can believe what we piece together regarding his life. The son of a priest, perhaps well educated, what would cause Jeremiah to use this word (naar) translated “I am only a boy?” It’s actually a really interesting word, because it is most often translated as boy or youth, but it can also potentially refer to a young girl, and if you dig deep you might even find an alternative translation that is something closer to a marginalized damsel. Among the slightly more prominent meanings are that of a servant or a retainer. Of course, I could have defined “retainer” in a variety of ways before Goggling it, but I was fairly curious to discover what, exactly, might cause us to refer to a person as a retainer. Jeremiah may not merely be stating the obvious but might also be insinuating that he is something of a place holder, indebted in some way to his household, made to believe he is less than he is, certainly not full of original or inspirational testimony or prophecy. I am blown away by God’s response to this. Essentially God counters, “Don’t say that!” I think we can infer that God’s concern might be primarily with the “only” that gets thrown in. I’m not sure God sees anyone as “only” anything.
In some ways, this brings us full circle in the discussion regarding life, because it is exceptionally rare to find any argument against the life of someone we do not perceive as “only.” The debates almost always center around people who are only forming, only criminals, only enemies, only elderly, only impoverished, only refugees, only something different than you and me, as if that makes them less human. But these are merely artificial constructions. In this passage, God plainly reminds Jeremiah that he was set apart. All of this “only” business? These aren’t God’s words. Instead of exclusion, God promises presence and deliverance, and then God further diminishes Jeremiah’s fears by putting God’s very own words in his mouth.
It seems that this could be the end of a beautiful tale. Jeremiah, now fully aware of his worth, goes forth, set apart and sent by God, and lives happily ever after. Sounds good. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t quite happen this way. In fact, Jeremiah becomes affectionately known as “the weeping prophet.” But there is a lot to be said in the last verse of this passage, where God not only reiterates Jeremiah’s appointment as a prophet but the appointment of a time (this day) and a place (everywhere). Maybe it’s vague, or maybe it’s timeless and completely relevant. Whatever the case, it is appointed that things must be broken down to start again. The context of these verses also seems to indicate that this new beginning comes through the marginalized. If this is the case, what will be our response? What should we be doing not only to live into our own callings but also to help put all people in the very best positions possible to live out the callings placed on their lives? Perhaps it is time to stop making value judgments and to instead empower and get out of the way, holding unswervingly to a consistent ethic of life and worth.