The prophet Jeremiah has been walking around in a yoke, as though he were a horse or an ox. You can imagine how eager people were to see him. He’s told the new King of Judah, the priests, and anyone else who will listen that God says anyone who submits to the yoke of the King of Babylon will be permitted to stay on their land. (A little light treason and blasphemy.) So, one day, Jeremiah’s at the Temple, in his yoke, looking for someone to listen to him, when the prophet Hananiah says to him, “Thus says the Lord: I have broken the yoke of the King of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back all the stuff he stole from the Temple. I’ll bring back the king he captured. I’ll bring back all the exiles he holds as hostages.”
Jeremiah’s reply is today’s First Reading. He says, “Han, I hope it’s true. I’d love nothing more. I miss the exiles and the new Temple plates and bowls are not as nice as the old ones. The thing is, Han, true prophets announce judgment, not prosperity, success, and greatness. I don’t think you’re a true prophet. What would you do? Would you listen to the guy who says, “Trust in the Lord and you will thrive and prosper,” or some guy wearing a yoke? You got that right.
Of course, it’s more than just Jeremiah’s yoke and his apparent lack of patriotism. Hananiah offers a more appealing vision: success, prosperity, and greatness. Why is that vision so appealing? It seems obvious, but think about it for a minute. What do such things mean to me? Speaking for myself, it’s a kind insulation from the world. There is much in the world that is evil, and prosperity means I don’t have to deal with it. Like, the evil is apparent but if I had some money I could endure it. Not to belabor the obvious, but success, prosperity, greatness, put me on top. Basically, Hananiah’s vision says I am okay with evil as long as I am on top. I’ll even help enforce and perpetuate the evil so I can stay on top.
Jeremiah and Hananiah lived in times that challenged traditional faithfulness. The state of Judah believed God gave it special protection, God’s 100% Rock of Ages Guarantee that a Davidic king would always reign in Jerusalem, and that Judah would always be free. But Judah was tiny, and Babylon was enormous, and its king wanted to rule Judah. Jeremiah was beginning to see what Isaiah later would discern in Exile: God is bigger than any one place, and God calls us to be God’s people wherever we live and whoever is in charge at the time. Hananiah’s vision mistakes the present political-economic reality for God. It declares that God is totally okay with people being locked in a brutal fight to the death because God has picked Judah to stay on the top of the heap. Jeremiah sees that is not God. God is not going to feed us at the expense of others, house us at the expense of others, protect us at the expense of others. If we have food, shelter, and safety and others don’t, that’s not God’s doing; that’s our doing. The people pick Hananiah’s vision. The alternative is facing the evil in the world. I don’t want to do that. It’s overwhelming.
Jesus says that the whoever offers welcome to a prophet or a righteous one, heck, even offers a glass of water to a little one, will not lose their reward. If anyone else spoke those words I would ignore them. But this is the guy who is God but is also a man and puts up with all the awful stuff humans do; who commands legions of crack angel soldiers but won’t use them when we conspire against him; who instead takes our horrific sinfulness upon himself, and carries it to the cross, and finally to the grave, away forever. Jesus sees the appeal of Hananiah’s vision. Jesus knows how tempting it is to ignore the evil of the world and to play along with it, how tempting it is to hide behind the world’s measure of success. He knows how tempting it is to see all of that as God. He knows because he carried it all with him, and personally destroyed it. Hananiah’s vision gave greatness, prosperity, and success all the authority. In the resurrection, Jesus tells his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” You don’t have to obey those things. You don’t have to make that mad scramble to the top, not minding who you kick in the face on the way. You’re free to follow Christ. And when you’re free to follow Christ, the overwhelming isn’t so overwhelming.
Jesus’ words recall people who were free to follow.
Whoever welcomes a prophet: In the days of the Prophet Elijah, King Ahab of Israel was internationally feared and respected, and with his wife, Jezebel, he hunted down and murdered God’s prophets. During a drought, God sent the prophet Elijah to Zarephath, just down the road from Jezebel’s hometown. A widow with hardly any food and a sick kid took Elijah in. This is politically and economically dangerous: “the food may run out, and if the Queen learns I’ve got Elijah here, she’ll kill me.” She did it though. God carried away what was overwhelming, and freed her to follow.
Whoever welcomes a righteous one: After Ahab, Israel declined. The region grew less secure. Elijah’s successor, Elisha, was homeless, and one day passed by a rich woman’s house. She offered him breakfast. So, he arranged to be on her street at breakfast every morning. She said to her husband, “I think he’s a righteous man. Let’s give him a place to stay in the loft.” Her husband said, “How many righteous men are you planning on taking in?” She said, “We’ll deal with it on a righteous-one-by-righteous-one basis. He is here, now.” In a troubled time, they could’ve been stingy. They housed him, though. God carried away the anxiety about their situation, and freed them to follow.
Whoever offers a cup of water: When Jezebel’s death squads were hunting down the prophets, the palace Chief of Staff was Obadiah, who worshipped God, not Baal. He took a hundred prophets and hid them in two caves and supplied them with bread and water through the terror, right under the noses of an internationally feared royal couple. He could’ve just kept his head down, or given up his faith entirely. Would’ve been safer. But God carried away worldly priorities, and freed him to follow.
God frees us not to worry about such things. For us, the world’s struggle to be on top—the empty truth of Hananiah’s vision—that’s all crucified, dead, and buried somewhere. What we’re able to do in the face of overwhelming evil may be small, but food meant the world to a starving Elijah, a room meant the world to a homeless Elisha, and a cave, bread, and water meant the world to the hundred prophets Obadiah hid.
God frees us to respond when we get overwhelming news, like when Bread for the World released its analysis of the proposed 2018 US budget. Some of you may have seen this. Bread for the World is an ecumenical organization with which the ELCA works to feed the hungry. They estimate that based on the proposed 2018 US budget cuts to services for the poor, every religious congregation in the United States will have to raise an additional $714,000 in outreach to make up the difference. That’s twice Trinity’s entire 2017 budget. So, triple our giving. We’ve got six months to get that together, so, no big deal, right? Overwhelming.
What’ve we got? Elijah’s meal, Elisha’s room, Obadiah’s cup of water. In Hananiah’s vision, that’s insufficient to overcome the challenge, and it’s still frightening to give it. In Christ—who frees us from Hananiah’s vision—we can offer what we have, knowing God uses it to break what otherwise overwhelms us. Every Sunday we enact it. Children come to the table with boxes and cans, each of which is a meal we could’ve had but that Christ freed us to share. The ushers bring plates we’ve filled with money we could’ve used in clawing our way to the top, but that Christ freed us to share. And we share the cup and the bread, and the leftovers we share with whoever is still here, and if we can’t finish it we share it with the birds and the bushes.
Our offering is our food for Elijah, our room for Elisha, our cup of water for the hundred prophets of God. The offering is a place where our faith lives and follows Christ who frees us from the world’s priorities. The liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop calls the offering “a sign in the world expressing the meaning of the [liturgy] and the nature of God’s holiness.” When a friend asks, “Why are you Christian?” one of the things we can point to is the offering. We can say “Christ frees us from clawing our way to prosperity at others’ expense, and now we can work to make sure that we aren’t the only ones who have enough to eat.” Such an explanation still might elicit some confounded looks—though probably not as many as Jeremiah’s yoke did—but like Jeremiah’s yoke our offering is a sign to the world: God is faithful to us. We don’t worry about Hananiah’s vision. We have Christ.