Whenever I teach a course on Jeremiah and come to chapter 20, I encourage those who are suffering from clinical depression to leave the room because this is, by far, the most depressing part of the Hebrew Scriptures.

There are two important points to understand about Jeremiah's predicament:

* First, he's a prophet: the conscience of his people. His ministry revolves around telling people what Yahweh wants them to do.

* Second, he knows nothing about an afterlife as we know it. He believes good is rewarded and evil punished within the confines of this life. That creates a dilemma. One can't be more certain than a prophet that he is doing something good; at the same time, Jeremiah, like all true prophets, suffers for the word he proclaims.

Punishment now

Restricted by his "this-life-only" theology, we hear the prophet in the first reading for Sunday (Jeremiah 20:10-13) make a logical request of Yahweh: "You who test the just, who probe mind and heart, let me witness the vengeance you take on [my enemies], for to you I have entrusted my cause."

Against all odds, Jeremiah continued to hope that God might keep him alive long enough to see the demise of those persecuting him.

Cutting through the prevailing theology, Jeremiah could only put his trust in Yahweh's word that he would be taken care of, even though he had no idea how Yahweh was going to pull that off before he died.

Jesus presumed His followers would have to endure the same opposition Jeremiah experienced (Matthew 10:26-33). He was concerned that what we learned "in darkness" would remain in darkness because we know what will happen to us when we proclaim His word "in the light."

"Do not be afraid of them," Jesus insisted. "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna."

Though Jesus assured us of how deeply He values us -- "Even the hairs of your head are numbered!" -- He never promised that we wouldn't end up being scalped by our enemies. His fear was that some, facing such opposition, might give up their faith and deny both Him and the life His call offered them.


Perhaps St. Paul, in the second reading (Romans 5:12-15), provides us with the best insight into enduring persecution. He goes beyond the effect such abuse has on us individually. Using Adam's sin as well as Jesus' suffering and death as the norm, the Apostle reminds the Christian community in Rome that one individual's actions can change life for everyone: "If by one person's transgression 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?"

Jesus, Paul and Jeremiah are forced to go beyond worrying about what's gong to happen to them if they openly proclaim God's word. Jeremiah sets the standard by falling back only on the relationship which the "just" have with God. Jesus agrees.

But Paul believes anyone who forms such a relationship with God will also discover that, in the process of forming that relationship, they've also formed a relationship with every other human being.

Not only did people of faith eventually discover their life extended beyond their earthly existence; they also found out that their relationship with God wasn't limited to Him.