Paging through a 1955 high school yearbook recently, it occurred to me that, at that point of their lives, no one in those class photos had yet heard of Elvis Presley! Of course, neither had they heard of Vietnam, Watergate or Y2K. But those events couldn't compare to Elvis.
It boggled my mind.
My insight about the yearbook reminded me that a Scripture scholar's most essential trait is the ability to read a biblical text while understanding what things the author knew and what things the author didn't know. Nowhere is this trait more needed than in Sunday's first reading (Jer 20:10-13).
Though difficult for modern believers to comprehend, Jeremiah knew nothing about an afterlife as we know it. Concepts of a heaven and hell were still 500 years in the future. That's why the prophet is so concerned that his enemies be humbled: "My persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph. In their failure they will be put to utter shame, to lasting, unforgettable confusion." Because there's no punishment in the afterlife, what doesn't happen in this life doesn't happen at all.
His enemies' demise must happen soon. If they aren't punished before Jeremiah's death, it's of no benefit to him. That's why he begs, "let me witness the vengeance you take on them for to you I have entrusted my cause."
Some Christians wonder why anyone spends time reflecting on a biblical passage whose author comes at faith from a different direction than their own. They either omit the Hebrew Scriptures from their faith experience or ingeniously find "secret messages" about Jesus in every text they read.
Real students of Scripture do neither. They simply identify with the author's most basic, fundamental principle of faith, the heart of all faith: our relationship with God.
I often remind my marriage course students that couples take vows to love each other for life only because the deeper their relationship grows, the more each will eventually discover about the other. Vows would be unnecessary if we never learned anything new about the persons we love.
In the same way, those who commit themselves to a lifetime relationship with God always discover new things about God and God working in their lives. God isn't a set of rules and regulations. God is a real, relating person.
So no matter what Jeremiah knew or didn't know of an afterlife, he could still proclaim, "Yahweh is with me, like a mighty champion."
Six centuries later, Paul discovers something new as he goes deeper into his relationship with God: God doesn't expect Gentile Christians to keep the 613 laws of Moses (Rom 5:12-15). He begins to realize that the Mosaic Law was simply a temporary tool employed by God to make certain that people would know when they were sinning. But since Jesus' death and resurrection, we no longer have to worry about sin.
"For if by one person's transgression," the apostle writes to the Romans, "the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one person Jesus Christ overflow for the many?" In other words, "Why worry about temporary death when we have permanent life?"
Matthew's community also uncovers a new dimension in their relationship with Jesus: persecution (Mt 10:26-33). Some wanted to "deprive their bodies of life" because they follow Him. Yet Matthew assures his readers that, in spite of death, everything will be okay. They shouldn't be afraid to proclaim Jesus "from the housetops," because in Jesus' words, "Whoever acknowledges me, I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father." A relationship with Jesus destroys even one's fear of death.
What will future generations of the faithful realize we had yet to discover when they see our pictures in the "heavenly yearbook"? It shouldn't make any difference -- as long as we continue to be one with God.