In Sunday School this week and for the next few weeks, we are studying the writings of the Prophet Jeremiah.
I find it truly fascinating how the Prophet Jeremiah is used in dramatically different ways by more conservative and more liberal members of the Church.
In the more conservative narrative, Jeremiah is a fearless and fierce critic of the corrupt practices found by the people of his day. He tirelessly calls out those that worship idols and those that engage in sinful sexual and other practices. As the teacher’s edition of the Sunday School manual emphasizes “Jeremiah’s mission was to raise a voice of warning to these people, and his denunciations of their wickedness are among the strongest in all scripture.” Jeremiah is described as a watchman on the tower and compared to modern day prophets who warn of wickedness. The lack of obedience to the Prophet’s message and the willingness of the people to instead listen to smooth and pleasant prophecies rather than repent is central to this message.
In contrast, the more liberal characterization of Jeremiah focuses on different aspect of Jeremiah’s life. This blog post by Ron Madsen epitomizes this characterization. The emphasis is on the fact that Isaiah was an outsider, not part of the religious establishment, and “called outside of the prevailing and well structured church authority lines/ institution.” The emphasis is on the corrupt nature of the religious establishment and those leaders of the Church today are compared to watchmen asleep on the tower. Jeremiah’s message is used largely as an indictment of the treatment of the poor in society. Rather than a ringing endorsement of the message of following the modern day prophets seers and revelators, Jeremiah is used to draw into question the prophetic calling and inspiration of modern day leaders.
I am not sure these two narratives need to be seen as mutually exclusive. Certainly, Jeremiah called out the corrupt and apostate religion of his day, and emphasized true practices of worship and a moral life. Jeremiah also championed the poor and the needy. Yet, it seems dangerous to use Jeremiah to encourage skepticism towards those called as Prophets, Seers and revelators in our day. Each General Conference, we hear the leaders of the Church clearly tell us how we can repent and draw closer to the savior. Their message is often unpopular as Jeremiah’s message was in his day. They teach a standard of morality and conduct that is largely scorned in our day.
It is important to note that while the establishment in Jeremiah’s day was largely religious, the establishment in our day is largely scornful of religion and religious sentiment. The message taught by true prophets will always discomfort the comforted to some degree. It will often strike those listening as old fashioned or out of date. Certainly, Jeremiah’s call to destroy idols and places of high worship struck many as old fashioned and unnecessary. The Church in our day thus serves a similar role.
The more liberal interpretation of Jeremiah seems to imply a general skepticism of establishments, be they political, social, or religious. Yet, in our day we have a church that is built on the rock of the savior. Critics of the Church often forget that Jesus Christ stands at the living head of the church. It is being led by continual and ongoing revelation. The problem in Jeremiah’s day, as in ours is that people were more willing to listen to smooth and pleasing words than to the good word of God. They were willing to listen to those who said eat, drink and be merry. They were willing to do anything to avoid actually needing to repent and come to Christ.
Those who attack the leaders of the Church ironically tend to use the outsider message of Jeremiah in order to encourage the exact kinds of deviant behaviors he would have condemned.