In __________ We Trust

A Reflection on Jeremiah 17

Divine Mercy

 

I’ve recently been reading the Old Testament prophets, and came across this striking gem from Jeremiah (17:5-8)

Thus says the LORD: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his arm, whose heart turns away from the LORD. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

What’s so striking about this is the stark choice that God offers the Jews at this tumultuous point in their history:

“Cursed is the man who trusts in man…. Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD….”

As usual, God doesn’t mince words. This is no wishy-washy, grey, or “nuanced” decree – either this or this.

Now, if we stop to ponder this, we should come to reflect on how this choice might apply to us today.

As I have reflected on it, I’ve come to the conclusion that God does indeed give us the same choice today just as he gave the people of Judah this choice 2,600 years ago. It is a very clear choice between accursedness and blessing, between destruction and Divine protection, ultimately, for us, between Hell and Heaven.  Place your trust in man, and you will be forsaken.  But place your trust in God, and you will be blessed!

Certainly, the Jews would have understood this Divine advice to apply exclusively to them in the realm of their present time in the Palestine of the Seventh and Sixth Centuries, BC.  And, of course, that is one perfectly correct interpretation of the reading – purely historical.  But it is neither the only nor the most full interpretation.

Even if our fallen human nature may not want to hear this message as applying to us, we know in our heart of hearts that it also applies to us today. As St. Paul tells us in his Second Letter to Timothy (Chapter 3, Verses 16 and 17), “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

In this case, we may understand the people of Judah to be a “type” of us. In other words, in order to unveil the next level of understanding from this Old Testament reading, we should evaluate the actions of the Jews, God’s ultimatum as delivered through the prophet Jeremiah, and the consequences visited upon them in light of our own actions and what consequences we might justly deserve.

First the history. In a nutshell, Jeremiah began his prophetic work during a time of idolatrous infidelity on the part of the Kingdom of Judah (also known as the “Southern Kingdom”).  The Kingdom of Israel (the “Northern Kingdom”) had already fallen to the Assyrians a century before.  Judah was at one time, prior to Jeremiah’s call, faithful to the Lord.  But, they turned away from the Lord by placing their trust in man-made idols.

Shortly after Jeremiah began his preaching, King Josiah brought the people back to the faithful worship of the one true God. But it didn’t last, and the kings who followed Josiah were worse than ever, placing their trust in man-made idols as well as political intrigue and unholy alliances with pagan kingdoms.  Following years of unheeded warnings delivered by Jeremiah, the Lord finally permitted the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, not once but twice – in 597 BC and in 589 BC, at which time the Temple was catastrophically destroyed and the Jewish people taken to Babylon in exile.

“Cursed is the man who trusts in man…. Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD….”

You see, after great patience, many warnings, and multiple opportunities for repentance and mercy, the Lord finally cursed the Kingdom of Judah. Its just punishment?  Destruction.

Now, on to us. Isn’t it easy for us in 2017 AD to say:

“Why didn’t they just listen to God speaking through Jeremiah?”

or

“What did they see in those empty idols made by men out of mere wood and stone?”

But, if we look clearly and honestly at ourselves, shouldn’t we admit that we often don’t listen to the warnings of God speaking through Holy Mother Church? Rather we prefer to trust in our own independent judgment which naturally leads us into sin and unholy alliances.  Shouldn’t we admit that we often worship the worthless and empty idols of pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, lust, gluttony, and all of their many sinful offspring?

When we do this, we are forsaking the Lord’s blessing, and inviting His curse.

“Cursed is the man who trusts in man…. Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD….”

The Church Fathers made it clear that this admonition from God applies to us Christians just as much as it applied to the Jews of the sixth century BC.

In the words of Saint Basil the Great: “A man who relies on himself or even on the person whose duty it is to provide for his needs, and thinks that his own activity or that of his associate is a sufficient resource for his livelihood runs the risk, as he places his hope in man, of falling under the curse that reads ‘cursed be the man who trusteth in man….’ …the Scripture declares that for anyone to place his trust either in himself or in anyone else is to alienate himself from the Lord.”  [Saint Basil, Question #42 of “The Long Rules of Saint Basil”1]

And the Saint Augustine of Hippo: “This is the combat we are challenged to, this the struggle with the flesh, this the struggle with the devil, this the struggle with the world….  Anyone relying on his own strength, you see, is relying, being clearly a man, on the strength of a man; and ‘accursed is everyone who rests his hope in man.’” [Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 344, “On Love of God and Love of the World”2]

So, does this choice offered by the Lord to the Jews 2,600 years ago apply to us today?

If your answer is “yes” (and I would suggest, for the sake of your eternal happiness, that it should be), the most important questions we must answer today are:

“How do we avoid placing our trust in man?”

and

“How do we sincerely place our trust in the Lord?”

To answer these questions, we would do well to revisit the empty idols of pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, lust, gluttony, and all of their many sinful offspring. These are traditionally known as the “Seven  Capital Vices” (or cardinal sins or deadly sins).  [Saint Thomas Aquinas, Question 84 of “Summa Theologica”]  In following any of these vices, we put ourselves in God’s place, and thereby effectively substitute our trust in the Lord with trust in man.

I know from personal experience that some of this self-reflection may be difficult, but I also know that you want the Lord’s eternal blessing, and not His curse.

Pride – If we truly place our trust in the Lord, we will not concern ourselves with our achievements or our reputation, because all of the credit should go to God. While we will act, we will not rely solely on our strength.  We will also not make our own truth.  If the church that Jesus founded upholds certain unchanging truths such as the sanctity of human life at all stages, the indissolubility of marriage, the very definition of marriage as between one man and one woman to name just a few, we should trustingly follow that truth.

Envy – If we truly place our trust in the Lord, we will be satisfied, we will trust, that what He has given us is sufficient for us rather than being jealous of the talents or possessions of others.

Wrath – If we truly place our trust in the Lord, we will acknowledge that we owe everything including our very existence to God, and so really have no right to treat others with anger.

Sloth – Again, if we truly place our trust in the Lord, we will acknowledge that we owe everything to Him. And that realization should cause us to make the effort to know and love Him more each passing day.

Greed, Lust, and Gluttony – If we truly place our trust in the Lord, we will find our happiness and joy in Him, trusting in the Lord’s providence (Matthew 6:24-34 – birds of the air and lilies of the field….) rather than in accumulating material things or indulging in sensual pursuits. In this respect, it is fitting to recall the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Pope Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae.”  In this letter to all of the faithful, the Pope explained very clearly that, within the context of marriage, pregnancy should be avoided only for “grave” or “serious” reasons, depending on the translation.  But, so many couples limit their family size just so that they and their existing children can have more things, take more vacations, or participate in more activities (manifestations of greed, lust, or gluttony depending on the specific situation).  If this particular message relates to you, I urge you to look into your heart, and ask whether your reasons have been “grave” or “serious” or whether you’ve sacrificed your openness to new life on the altar of the idol known as consumerism.

This reading from Jeremiah makes it crystal clear that trust in the Lord is a serious matter. I hope you will join me in reflecting on it daily this coming week.  As you do, keep in mind that, as with all things, the Lord sincerely wants us to choose the path that leads to His blessing.

And let us pray for the grace and perseverance to one day receive that blessing for all eternity.  For “blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord.”

Jesus, I Trust in You!

 

 

 

References

  1. Wagner, M. Translator (1962). Saint Basil Ascetical Works (The Fathers of the Church, A New Translation, Volume 9). Washington, D.C. The Catholic University of America Press.
  2. Rotelle, J. Editor/Hill, E. Translator (1995). The Works of Saint Augustine, Sermons, Volume III. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press.

 

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