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Jeremiah and the Bad Kings (Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Luke 23:33-43)
When I was a child, I simply could not reconcile the stories of Jesus’ birth; the accounts of his healing the lame, deaf, dumb, blind, mentally ill and leprous with the terrible crucifixion that the Gospels speak of. I asked myself, “Why?” How such an evil could be done and if done at all, then why to someone who was manifestly and obviously good? Today, we are celebrating the feats of Christ the King and, by putting together the crucifixion Gospel and the oracle of Jeremiah, I think the lectionary is trying to help us understand it.
Jeremiah lived during the reigns of the last five kings of Judah and his warnings to them about their greed, rapacity, violence to widows, orphans and the poor and the consequences that will follow if they did not amend their ways, are what gives him the reputation as a doomsayer and gave us the word jeremiad. The shepherds to which Jeremiah refers, are the kings; bad leaders who, rather than protect their people, exploit them and leave them unguarded to the wolves. Jeremiah suffered at their hands for his outspokenness; his warnings were ignored, the temple was destroyed and the Jews were sent into exile in Babylon. As the Lord said, “I will attend to you for your evil doings.” But that was not all Jeremiah forecast, “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them and they shall not fear any longer.” In other words, listen you kings, either you behave properly, lead your people wisely and well, return to the worship of the true God or I, Jeremiah, predict that you will be destroyed and not only that but that a new king, unrelated to you or your lineage, will come to rule in your place.
Somewhere, I suppose in Syria today, there are some Jeremiahs saying just that to President Assad. For what we see on our television screens is beyond belief. His people are homeless, destitute, dying, starving through siege, being murdered by their own army and still the man Assad appears perfectly groomed in his suit in his palace. His sheep have been scattered in their millions, miles away from their homes on the frontiers with neighbouring countries, living in makeshift shanties, desperate for food and the minimum of healthcare. So why doesn’t he step down? Surely, even he and his supporters can see that the present regime is not doing any good.
Robert Fisk, the reporter with the Times and later the Independent, wrote a long and comprehensive book based on his many years reporting from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and all over the region called The Great War for Civilization. As he traces the history and the many regime changes in each country, it becomes abundantly clear that bad “kings” and their henchmen never step down.
And that is because they know that the new “king” will find them out, will uncover the true extent of their evil ways and, most often and it seems to me, most especially in the particular cultural religious and secular mix of the Middle East, will most often exact retribution and reprisals on the old. The Iranian revolution is a classic case of this. It is not only the kings but also their followers. It was simply too difficult to control as the Ayatollah’s very quickly found out. And so to hold on to power, President Assad and his supporters actually become worse than before; the downside is too big and no measure becomes too extreme to avoid that.
This sounds good to you and me but did not sound at all good to Herod, to Caiaphas and to the governing Romans or their soldiers who knew this prophecy. They said, this Jesus who some say is the Messiah will certainly find us out and, if he is the Messiah, then he will depose us, rule over us and execute justice. And that explains the unmerited extreme measures that were taken to crucify our king and the sarcastic inscription over his broken body: “This is the king of the Jews” we are not going, they say; you will not depose us and rule over us.
But they misunderstood it all; only the second criminal has an inkling of the truth, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he said. And so today, the last Sunday of the Christian calendar, we remember that Jesus came as the king of all and from next week, as we enter the period of Advent, of waiting and watching, we ponder these mysteries and pray that indeed he will come and that we may all once more live in safety.”