Only the Sick
Jeremiah was the prophet who wept. “Since my people are crushed, I am crushed. I mourn, and horror grips me.”(1)
Jeremiah spoke within a period of turbulent unrest among the nations. From the start, his prophecy was surrounded by conflict. As with many prophets, the people refused to heed his message. At times, they abused and even imprisoned the messenger. Yet despite their impetuous misdeeds and faithless offenses, Jeremiah’s empathetic words and earnest prayers portray his love for the people of Judah. As they were crushed, he was crushed. As they continued to turn from God, he mourned. Flattened by the horrors of his day and the agony of pleading with a people who would not listen, Jeremiah asked: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?”
Certainly Jeremiah longed to see the people comforted in their misery and healed of their iniquities, and yet his question here is rhetorical. Gilead was a city that represented prosperity, a city abounding in the spices and aromatic gums that were used as balms and medicine. Comforting balms were in no shortage; physicians could be found. But there was no salve that could heal, nor doctor who could mend, a people that would not see what was wrong. There is no healing for wounds that won’t be changed. At this, poets still weep with Jeremiah:
We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
It is sad, the consistent assembly of voices insisting that if there is a God, this God has not tried hard enough to reach us. This God has not tried hard enough to reach us in our needs, to meet us in our despair. Knowing the sad and desperate eyes of a child who won’t let you pull the splinter out of his foot or give him the medicine that will make him feel better, it seems more likely that it is not God’s arm that is too short to save or gather us, but we who might tie God’s hands. Could it be that God is not far off, but that in our dread we push God aside? Is it not possible that we cut ourselves off from his cure by refusing to see our own ailment?
The God of the Christian story is powerfully represented as longing to be gracious to the one who makes even the slightest attempt to move nearer. God is imagined as the Father who runs to embrace the prodigal who is yet a great distance off, the hen who longs to gather her chicks under her wings. God is described as inclining his ear and searching hearts. God is shown as one who receives human tears as they fall silently on his human feet. God is presented as one who whispers in our prayers and interprets even groanings when words are lost. Though we make our beds in the depths, the God of faith is mercifully shown as one who draws near.
The people of Judah during the ministry of Jeremiah refused to see their incessant struggle as tearing them apart from the God who longed, like the prophet himself, to reach them. They cried for help, but they wouldn’t see what ailed them or the physician asking to help. They would not see their own behavior as causing further pain and violence to themselves. “Why has this people perpetually turned away?” asked the Lord. “They have held fast to deceit; they have refused to return. I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken honestly. No one repents wickedness, asking, ‘What have I done?’”
In this simple admission may well be the balm of the cross. In the disclosure of pain and illness is the proclamation of comfort and cure: This sickness will not end in death. But it is only the sick who need a physician.
(1) See Jeremiah 8.