Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Key phrases: Plentiful, food, fountain of living water, dry cisterns
You may have home gardeners in your congregation. Often, their harvests produce a bounty greater than they can use themselves, so they offer their friends and anyone they encounter delicious and fresh tomatoes, zucchini, beans, and lettuce. They share with us what we need to nourish our bodies.
God is a gardener, too. Genesis 1 tells us that when God created the world, the world was like a garden that produced everything needed for life. God says, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food” (vv. 29–30). Reinforcing this image, Psalm 81:16 speaks for God in saying, “I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you." Even in the wilderness, God made daily bread available to all – manna that could not be hoarded and could only be shared.
Abuse of nature, which is often committed in pursuit of short-term personal profit rather than the common good, treats what God has called good as if it were worthless. Our worship of the almighty dollar and self-importance exploits the poor and vulnerable and results in damage to God’s good and irreplaceable creation. When we pursue those things and actions that hurt others, we have turned from the Creator to false gods. Is there healing for the damage we’ve done?
The texts this month address the church as a group and as individuals.
Scholars generally date the oracles of Jeremiah to the end of the 600s B.C. to the first years of the Babylonian Captivity. King Josiah of Judea was, in the later years of the seventh century B.C., promoting a reform movement to eradicate the Assyrian cultural and religious practices that had a crept into and corrupted Judaism. Today’s passage (Jer. 2:4-13) suggests to us that to care for creation is also to care for the community of God’s people (as well as those outside the community). Jeremiah draws the people’s attention back to their exodus from slavery in Egypt to salvation, a defining event to which the Scriptures frequently refer. In those days, God’s daily provision of manna sustained the people as they journeyed to the Promised Land, “a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.” Years after arriving, “you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination” (v. 2:7). “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit,” God says through Jeremiah. Though the tradition recalled God’s love and care for God’s people, the people were now attracted to the practices introduced by the Assyrian overlords. God’s people devalued the gift of God’s liberation and protection when they “went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves” (2:5). “What wrong did your ancestors find in me?” God asks through the prophet. When we turn from God, we snub the Creator and the blessing.
Earlier in the book, the prophet describes how the people turned 180 degrees from God’s way. They “take over the goods of others” (v. 5:26); “they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy” (v. 5:28). What humans tend to value—status, power, money—is worthless in the realm of God. Perhaps the people wanted to fit in with the invading culture and its pagan religion, or had their heads turned by something new, or allowed themselves to be tempted by selfishness and greed; we can only speculate. Yahweh had demonstrated to the people and their ancestors the divine care for the good of the whole nation, but any promises of the Assyrian gods were worthless. They added nothing to God’s garden of abundance for all. Rather than enjoy God’s “fountain of living water” (v. 13), the people dug their own cisterns for themselves, which eventually cracked and ran dry. We might say that the pursuit of the false just does not “hold water.”
We can observe the same factors at work today in terms of our turning our backs on God’s good creation in favor of acquisitiveness and short-term gain. Deforestation is creating an environmental calamity. “[T]he mass destruction of trees—deforestation—continues, sacrificing the long-term benefits of standing trees for short-term gain” for such purposes as expansion of grazing land or construction of new housing developments, reports Christina Nunez in National Geographic (“Climate 101: Deforestation,” Feb. 9, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/deforestation/). In addition to contributing to global warming and its attendant problems, the reduction in the number of trees causes drought. “Trees actually do two processes. They drill water into the ground. They funnel water into underground aquifers where it is stored to supply rivers during drought,” Nick Nuttal, spokesman for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), told The New Humanitarian (“Deforestation Exacerbates Droughts, Floods,” Nov. 10, 2016, http://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/feature/2006/11/10). “They also hold soil. Where there are no trees, the soil is washed away into rivers causing siltation into the oceans, choking coral reefs. . . . The link between deforestation and drought is very significant,” he adds. It is the poor who are most harmed by environmental abuse. Even today, when we exploit God’s good creation, we find that our cisterns are drying up and cracking.
Throughout the Scriptures, we are taught that the way of God is to care for the outcast, the foreigner, the powerless, the poor, and the neglected. To stray from these priorities is to follow false gods. In the Luke passage (vv. 14:1, 7-14), Jesus tells a parable that illustrates the folly of turning from God to false gods. As a dinner guest at the home of a Pharisee, Jesus uses as an object lesson the behavior that he observes among the guests. They were jockeying for prime positions at the dining table to advertise their high status. In other words, they were pursuing the false god of superiority. When we favor guests who are powerful, self-important, and self-absorbed, we pay obeisance to the god of status, hoping that it can save us from our personal insecurity. In so doing, we turn down the reliable lovingkindness and salvation of the true God.
The host in Jesus’ parable is like God, inviting all to the table to enjoy together the abundant fruits of God’s creation. God as host invites the poor and marginalized as honored guests. The powerful have an opportunity to assume the seats usually left for those of lower status and thereby show respect to them. This is quite a different ethic than gorging oneself for immediate pleasure, wasting the goodness of God’s garden, and leaving little for those who don’t have the status to sit nearest the host.
Remaining with God and caring for the good of the community gives us access to a well-watered garden that sustains our souls and bodies. When we chase after other gods, disaster results. This week’s texts are both instructive and foreboding.
Questions for reflection:
- In what ways have you observed poor “table manners” (treatment of others) practiced by the church and its people?
- In what situations have your church’s people found “living water”—and how do they share it?
- What are some “false gods” that tempt your church to stray from commitment to the Way of the gospel?
Rev. Victoria Rebeck is a deacon and member of the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She has combined her theology and journalism background in appointments to The Christian Century magazine, United Methodist Publishing House, Minnesota Annual Conference, and the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Her ministry has focused on pointing the church to the world's needs for compassion and justice. She is a board member of Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, which provides quality legal assistance to immigrants, particularly those receiving lower incomes.