Of all the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah comes closest to the New Testament understanding of what it means to be a bearer of God’s word.
He foreshadows the truth, first emphasized in the New Testament by Paul, in opposition to the wandering preachers, who set great store in their own miraculous powers and visionary experiences, that witness means suffering.
This theme was then taken up by Mark (followed, as we see in today’s ospel, by Matthew) in his redaction of the Jesus tradition.
It is this aspect of today’s passage from Jeremiah that the caption rightly emphasizes: “The word of the Lord has meant derision for me.”
Many of the psalms are intensely personal, but when they were adopted into the liturgy of the temple, they acquired a corporate meaning, the “I” of the psalmist being expanded to embrace the whole people of God.
In the person of Jesus Christ, who is the true Israel, the psalm is narrowed down again to a single person, the “I” of Christ himself. But then it expands once more to include the body of Christ, which in him can take these words to itself.
The people of God on their pilgrimage pass through a dry and weary land where there is no water.
But in the sanctuary, as they assemble to celebrate the liturgy, they have a pledge and assurance of the ultimate vindication of Christ’s cause.
They feast together on “marrow and fat” and praise God with joyful lips, even in the midst of the dry and weary land.
It is a pity that the text as printed omits a tiny yet crucial word—“therefore” (Greek: oun): “I appeal to you therefore, brethren.” It is crucial because Rm 12-15 of Romans present Christian ethics as “therefore ethics,” that is to say, Christian ethics is a response to what God has done in Christ.
Only after expounding the redemptive act of God in Christ and setting it in the context of salvation history could Paul go on to discuss ethical problems. This ethic is seen as the true Christian worship.
In a celebrated essay, Ernst Käsemann suggested that Paul is in some way anticultic, that for him true Christian worship is to be seen in ethical behavior, not in the cultus. This is the kind of either-or that appeals to the German mind, but it does less than justice to the inclusiveness of the biblical material.
No one doubts that liturgy must penetrate life, but life must first find its focus in liturgy. We present our bodies as a living sacrifice in the liturgy (Cranmer included this phrase in the eucharistic prayer, and it has remained a feature of Anglican liturgies ever since) precisely in order that we may go out into the world and present them in life.
Christian ethics is not primarily expressed in a code. Paul will give something that looks like a code in Romans 12 through 15, with many single commandments.
But these are meant as illustrations of what a renewed mind, not conformed to this world, will lead to.
In an apt illustration, John A. T. Robinson has spoken of the Christian’s “antennae,” which should enable one to discern the will of God in a given situation and which arises out of a transformed mind.
Such transformation takes place through hearing the Word of God and through offering oneself to God in union with Christ’s suffering. This takes place quite concretely in the liturgy.
As we noted in the comments for last Sunday, Matthew has detached this section from Mark’s pericope and placed it by itself.
As in the second reading today, a tiny but significant word has been left out at the beginning—the word “then” (Greek: tote): “Then Jesus began to show his disciples.” This word detaches this section and yet links it as a sequel to the foregoing pericope.
The other major alteration Matthew has made in the Marcan text is in the final verse (Mt 16:27), which he has converted into a scene of the parousia—Last Judgment: “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what he has done.”
For Mark, the court of the Son of Man will vindicate the church and pass judgment upon the believing world. For Matthew, it is the church that will be judged—a theme that he hammers home again and again, right up to the parable of the sheep and the goats.
The church will be judged according to the fidelity of its discipleship, even at the cost of taking up its cross and following Jesus, in its readiness to lose its life for his sake.