The following is an English Version of the sermon that I preached in the parish church of Pfaffstätten on the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2016. The reading of Jeremiah owes much to Ratzinger’s reflections on Jeremiah in Auf Christus schauen.
Brothers and sisters, in the first reading we heard how Jeremiah is thrown into a cistern, and sinks into the mud. Jeremiah’s whole life as a prophet has been marked by the rejection of his prophecies. And now, as an old man, he is again at the point of his death, because his prophecy is so unacceptable to the people. What is so offensive about Jeremiah’s prophecy? Jeremiah is prophesying the defeat of the people, and therefore he appears to be a Volksveräter and a defeatist, giving councils of despair, and thus aiding the Babylonian tyrant, Nebuchadnezzar:
And the princes said to the king: We beseech thee that this man may be put to death: for on purpose he weakeneth the hands of the men of war, that remain in this city, and the hands of the people, speaking to them according to these words: for this man seeketh not peace to this people, but evil.
This scene takes place during the reign of King Zedikiah. Zedikiah’s brother had been taken off to Babylon as an exile with many treasures from the temple, and Zedikiah himself had been installed as a puppet king, bound by oath to obey Nebuchadnezzar. But now, Zedikiah wants to free Judah from the Babylonians. The false prophet Hananiah supports him, telling him that the Lord will surely help his people to free themselves from the Babylonian yoke. And so of course people are upset by Jeremiah’s prophecy. Why can’t Jeremiah “get with the programme”? Doesn’t he realize that God must want the liberation of His people? Doesn’t He realize that God is a God of hope, not of despair? Doesn’t He realize that the message of God must be a “Frohbotschaft” not a “Drohbotschaft“?
In reality, Jeremiah realizes all of things better than his enemies. He is a true prophet of hope, because he teaches that hope is found only in conversion to God. A hope that cannot be taken away by any temporal catastrophe. And so he realizes that as long as the people refuse to convert their hearts to God, God will visit them with temporal failure, meant to bring them to their senses.
And of course, Jeremiah’s prophecies come true— the kingdom of Juday is destroyed, and all but the old and weak are taken captive to Babylon. But in this apparently final destruction of all their hopes Jeremiah is able to proclaim the true hope to them:
Behold the days shall come, saith the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Juda: Not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt: the covenant which they made void, and I had dominion over them, saith the Lord. But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, after those days, saith the Lord: I will give my law in their bowels, and I will write it in their heart: and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
This is the hope that was given to us by Christ, and it is the hope that is proclaimed by His Church.
And the Church often suffers the fate of Jeremiah: being thrown into the mud, as a traitor to the hopes of the world.
We can see this throughout history. For example, in the French Revolution. How could the Church be against the liberation of the poor from tyranny? How could she give her moral authority to reign of tyrants? And so thousands of priests and religious and simple peasants of the Vendée, were murdered for their opposition to the vain dreams of secular liberty, equality and fraternity.
We see it again in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, when the Church was attacked from both sides. Attacked by the capitalists for being against the economic freedom that they saw as the condition of economic growth, and the technological and social progress of mankind. Attacked by the communists and socialists for being “reactionary,” and “pessimistic,” opposing the necessary liberation and progress of mankind toward liberation. Both sides threw the Church into the mud, as it were, in their propaganda, delighting in pointing out the faults and hypocrisies of her members. Faults and hypocrisies they undoubtedly had then as at all times, but the true source of the hatred against the Church was surely her opposition to false hopes.
But the prophecies of the Church proved true as the 20th century saw not the End of History and the coming of the New Man, but the shedding of oceans of innocent blood. Before their ignominious end, the National Socialists delighted at throwing mud at the Church as the enemy of the destiny of the German nation. But the “thousand year realm” lasted scarcely longer than the reign of Zedikiah. Similarly, really existing socialism in eastern Europe persecuted the Church as an enemy of progress and hope. But it was the Church that had the true hope.
In our day things are perhaps not so dramatic. But even today we can see many cases in which the Church is criticized for being against progress and liberation, of being pessimistic. Take, for example, the so-called “sexual revolution.” Bl. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which condemned artificial contraception, was greeted with a storm of anger and scorn. How can the Church be against the liberation of humanity through the technological domination of nature? Is that not the very essence of progress? Why can’t the pope “get with the programme”? Doesn’t he realize that God must want his children to enjoy their sexual lives in a rational way, choosing when the want their joy to be ordered to new life, and when they want it to be ordered simply to the expression of love? Doesn’t he realize that God is a God of optimism, not of pessimism? A God who rejoices in the progress and prosperity of His creatures? Doesn’t he realize that the message of God must be a “Frohbotschaft” not a “Drohbotschaft“? A message that affirms life, not a set of irrational kill-joy prohibitions and taboos? And this indignation continues to be brought against the Church today, for remaining faithful to Bl. Paul VI’s teaching.
But Bl. Pope Paul was not against the true hope of humanity. He realized that our true hope is to be found in following God’s will for our lives, in living according to the law that He as written into our natures. That we will not become happy by “liberating” ourselves from the meaning that God has given to sexuality as a sign of His love for creation. And Pope Paul’s prophecies came true. “Sexual liberation” did not bring joy and happiness, but loneliness, sadness and despair— the ruin of families, the plague of divorce, and ever more violent and hideous perversions.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us give thank God for the true hope that He gives us. And let us ask Him for the grace to remain faithful to that hope, and not to be blinded by the false images of hope offered by this world.