Before I formed you in the womb I knew you and loved you, before you were born I chose you (Jer 1:5).
I have repeated these words countless times in my preaching, but most often in moments of pastoral counseling both inside and outside of the confessional. So many of us long to know of God’s deep and abiding love and these divine words offer healing balm to our deep woundedness, especially when we might doubt whether we are worthy of God’s love. In their full context, they are part of a dialogue between God and Jeremiah when God first called Jeremiah to be his messenger to the citizens of Jerusalem nearly 600 years before the time of Christ. Like many of us, Jeremiah expresses his own sense of unworthiness before the Almighty God: Ah, Lord God! … I do not know how to speak. I am too young! God reassures Jeremiah, To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you (1:6-8).
As in our current culture, many in Jeremiah’s time had drifted away from God. Thus, Jeremiah was sent by God to call his neighbors to turn away from the false idols of the day and to turn back to right relationship with God. Otherwise, they would face certain destruction at the hands of the Babylonian empire. To make matters worse for Jeremiah, other prophets reassured the people that just as they had been spared in previous conquests, they would be protected by God from the destruction foretold by Jeremiah.
On this 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear from an overwhelmed Jeremiah who cries out in exasperation: You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped. … All the day, I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I must cry out, violence and outrage is my message. … I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it (20:7-9). Although God has reassured Jeremiah that he walks with him always, the ridicule and inaction of the people leaves him feeling alone and “duped” by God. Yet, the truth of God’s word burns within him and he knows no amount of adversity can cause him to deny his calling to speak the truth. Jesus reiterates that our own Christian calling requires the willingness to give of oneself completely despite the cost in this Sunday’s Gospel: Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me (Mt 16:24).
Again, like Jeremiah, we too, may feel duped by this seemingly impossible task. However, the self-denial, cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the eternal promise that divine love conquers all — all our doubt, all our suffering, all our sense of unworthiness.
Fr. Brennan, vocation director at St. Norbert Abbey, De Pere, earned master of divinity and theology degrees from Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.