Cutting Out God's Words

In The Book of Jeremiah (36:1-32), we are told that Jeremiah has his secretary Baruch write down all the words that the Lord has spoken to Jeremiah. (This may well be the first copy of The Book of Jeremiah.) These words announced a harsh judgment against Israel and were calling them to renew their commitment to God’s covenant if they wanted to avoid disaster. Because these words were critical of King Jehoiachin’s leadership, Jeremiah tells Baruch that it would be too dangerous for the prophet himself to read these words in the house of the Lord. Therefore, he would need Baruch to read them.

Baruch reads the words of Jeremiah in the house of the Lord. When King Jehoiachin’s officials were informed about these words, they were so concerned that they asked Baruch to come and read the same to them. Here is where things get interesting. Baruch reads the words to the officials, and they are clearly taken by them and take the words to the king. But as one of the king’s officials reads the words to the king, the king finds them so offensive the king cuts them off with a penknife and throws them into a fire until the whole scroll had been burned. He then orders the arrest of Jeremiah and Baruch, “but the Lord hid them” (v.26b).

King Jehoiachin clearly didn’t want to hear what the Lord had to say and in dramatic fashion denounced these words. I wonder how often we still do that today in the church. No, we don’t burn various pages of the Bible; we just don’t read them.

For example, several years ago an ecumenical committee of the church in North America developed a lectionary—schedule of readings—that assigns readings for every Sunday in the church year. Because it is impossible to use every word in the Bible, the lectionary committee made decisions on what to include and exclude. Sometimes I wonder if like King Jehoiachin, they just found some words to threatening. For example, over the last few weeks we have had readings from the Letter of James on Sunday morning. What I discovered this week is that the lectionary doesn’t include 5: 1-6, which reads: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.” James then tells us that these rich folk have put their trust in their treasure, some of which they have acquired through fraud. I wonder if the lectionary committee “cut out” these words because they were just too close to home. Compared to the vast majority of humanity, my congregation and others in North America are very wealthy.

Of course, in spite of all its faults, the beauty of using the lectionary on Sunday morning is that we don’t leave the selection of readings up to the pastor’s discretion. If I chose the readings for Sunday, I would undoubtedly “cut out and throw into the fire” any number of God’s words. As it is, I and the congregation simply have to hear what has been assigned—no matter how uncomfortable.

My hunch is this: When certain passages in the Bible make us uncomfortable, we shouldn’t be too quick to write them off. We may indeed find that certain texts are no longer relevant in our time and place. But what we might also discover is that very often our discomfort is an invitation to address something in our life. King Jehoiachin’s discomfort stemmed from his unwillingness to acknowledge his faithless leadership and the disastrous consequences. Our discomfort may also be the result of our own unwillingness to take a hard look at our own lives.

Roger GreeneComment