Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
who says, “I will build myself a spacious house
with large upper rooms,”
and who cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion.
Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord.
But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.
A primary call of the prophet is to speak truth, no matter the consequences. Jeremiah offers us an example of this prophetic calling in action in his denunciation of king Jehoiakim of Judah in today’s reading. He frames his condemnation by comparing Jehoiakim to his father Josiah, widely regarded as one of the greatest kings of Judah who had discovered the book of the law and initiated a series of important reforms in his kingdom. Josiah was not only a great reformer but also a just and holy king in Jeremiah’s estimation. The prophet asks Jehoiakim, ‘did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness…he judged the cause of the poor and needy….is not this to know me? says the Lord.’ To know God, Jeremiah says, is to do justice and righteousness and to care for the poor and needy. Using this metric Jeremiah makes it clear why king Jehoiakim was deserving of condemnation—he built his house with unrighteousness and his upper rooms by injustice; he made his neighbor work for nothing and gave them no wage; he built himself a spacious house with large upper rooms with cedar and vermillion (ways of flaunting his royal power and wealth) while ignoring the plight of the poor and needy; he gained through dishonesty and practiced oppression and violence.
Some aspects of humanity, it seems, don’t change all that much. The words of the prophet Jeremiah are as relevant in our own day as they were in his of several thousand years ago. We might not personally live as lavishly as king Jehoiakim did, but we know that injustice infects our society. The Lenten journey calls us to look inward, but we will have missed a key component of the journey if that introspection does not lead us out into a changed way of being in the world. Jeremiah reminds us that to know God is to do justice and care for the poor and needy. Let us hold this prophetic word close in our hearts in the days ahead and pray that God will transform us as we walk with Jesus ever closer to the cross.
Almighty God our heavenly Father, renew in us the gifts of your mercy; increase our faith, strengthen our hope, enlighten our understanding, widen our charity, and make us ready to serve you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006, p. 58)