The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Don’t Shoot the Messenger

What if you’re a prophet, but the message that God gives you to proclaim isn’t revolutionary?

By Tony Jones

Old Testament Reading: Jeremiah 29: 1-7

For Sunday, October 10, 2010 – Year C, Ordinary 28

Jeremiah seemed to generally have a pretty sour disposition, which I guess can be expected since over the course of his prophetic career he was attacked by his own brothers, beaten and put into the stocks by a priest and false prophet, imprisoned by the king, threatened with death, thrown into a cistern by Judah’s officials, and opposed by another false prophet. Why so much grief just for doing what he’d been told by God? Probably because God gave him such a difficult message.

Whose Address Is On that Letter?

Among other things, Jeremiah had to preside, in the Lord’s stead, over the expulsion of the Israelites from their Promised Land into Babylon. Although this happens because of the false worship of Israel, it’s not a message they want to hear.

We pick up the story in approximately 598 BCE. Most of Israel is in Babylon, and a couple of prophets named Hananiah and Shemaiah are telling the people that their exodus from the Babylonian Captivity is imminent. When the Babylonians had invaded Judah and carted off the Israelites, they hadn’t destroyed the Temple, so the Israelites were particularly receptive to Hananiah and Shemaiah’s message of hope.

Then along comes the old curmudgeon, Jeremiah, with a letter from the Lord, the message of which is not what the Israelites want to hear. “Unpack your bags, sayeth the Lord,” cries the prophet, “You’re going to be here a while. You might think about investing in real estate.

“Oh, and get friendly with your neighbors — yeah, the ones who forcibly brought you here.”

So Much for Revolutionary Prophets

These days, when liberal/progressive churchy people use the word, “prophetic,” they usually mean something that’s going to upset and usurp the powers that be. For instance, sermons that decry the “militaristic, consumeristic, imperialistic culture of the West” are seen as “prophetic.”

Sermons that encourage parishioners to settle down in the suburbs and join the neighborhood watch group are not.

But here we’ve got Jeremiah bringing another message that the people don’t want to hear. His earlier jeremiads against false worship seem more in keeping with the prophet’s job description. But I guess the people didn’t want to hear those either.

The Hardest Question

So, whaddya do if you’re a (prophetic) preacher, but the message that God gives you to proclaim isn’t revolutionary?

Tony Jones is the author of many books, including The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community. He blogs at The Tony Jones Blog. And he’s teaching a D.Min. cohort on Christian spirituality at Fuller Theological Seminary beginning in 2011.


  1. Tell me if I’m trying too hard here, but isn’t this word from Jeremiah to settle down in the midst of their captors actually pretty revolutionary? Isn’t there a strong strain in the tradition to avoid domestication with non-Israelites because it leads to complacency which leads to apostasy? Given that, I wonder if we can see this instruction to get friendly with neighbors as revolutionary in a “you’ve heard that it was said ‘love your neighbors and hate your enemies’ but I say ‘love your enemies’” kind of way?

    I agree with Tony that my life in the suburbs has never seemed at all revolutionary. In fact, I’ve often been a bit embarrassed by our very comfortable living situation. I certainly have never preached on the need to settle down out here. But as I read the text and Tony’s thoughts here, I’m beginning to rethink that a little…

    How many of us really know those that live next door to us or down the block? Do we spend too much time relating mainly with our church friends and not enough being good neighbors to those physically closest to us?

    Thanks for getting me thinking about all this – I really like this site and the approach taken here!

  2. Great thoughts here, Tony. Thanks for sharing them.

    They got me wondering if Ps. 66 is another message of ‘This life isn’t going to be easy, but you’d better just settle into it anyway.’

How do you read?