If I had met Jeremiah in the streets of Jerusalem six centuries before Jesus Christ, what impression would he have made on me? It is true that the book that bears his name is at times hard to take: too many announcements of misfortune. But if I looked closely at his face, would I not have discovered a man who was open, sensitive, and farsighted, who dared to express his opinion, but who was also humble, even tender, able to be moved while speaking of God’s love? One day, I would have seen him walk through the city with a yoke on his shoulders (ch. 27) and I would have been shocked.
The question then arises: what was the motivating-force behind that outstanding man? How did he stay on his feet, without bending, while at the same time remaining supple despite the yoke he had to bear?
This question could be answered in three points:
1. Jeremiah was convinced that his vocation was not rooted in himself, in his desires or needs, but that it came from Another: before being formed in his mother’s womb, God had set him apart (1:5). That was his constant reference-point: God had given a meaning to his life even before he realized it. His role was to respond to this act of God without ever turning back.
Naturally, when he looked at himself, he must have seen that he was not equal to the task. “I am too young” (1:6), I do not have what it takes to speak in public; I don’t even have the right. Still, he knew that God would not take this argument into account. Focusing on oneself is not suitable for someone who has been called. Someone else takes care of what he or she must be.
At times he would have liked to escape that call: “I said, I will not pronounce his words or speak any more in his name, but his word was in my heart like a fire shut up in my bones. I was weary of holding it in; indeed, I was unable to” (20:9). Today we might find it dangerous for a human being to submit totally to another person’s will, even to God’s. For Jeremiah it was rather the secret of his solidity. If in spite of all the oppositions he encountered he remained unshakeable, that is because in the depths of his being he left the priority to God.
2. There was nothing fanatical about Jeremiah. He spoke openly to God about what he could not accept. He expressed all his discouragement. He did not hide it from others, either. With the same transparence he also admitted that his fatigue and his grievances did not have enough weight before God. He consented to letting himself be challenged: “If you have raced with people on foot and they have already worn you out, how will you compete with horses?” (12:5).
At times God shook him up. God told him bluntly that he no longer wanted to hear unworthy words from his lips and that Jeremiah had only to return to him (15:19). And when all was said and done it seemed normal to the prophet that the last word belonged to the One who had been first in his life. He knew that One well enough to realize that he was not a harsh and authoritarian God, but rather the One who, amidst the harshest trials, never ceased “loving with an everlasting love and drawing to him with unfailing kindness” (31:3), the One who in loving felt “a yearning of the heart and great compassion” (31:20).
Jeremiah felt as if God had “seduced” him (20:7). He did not know what was happening to him, for God took him by his vulnerable side and he let himself be taken. His whole relationship with God was always marked by that approach. “Vulnerability, a preferred doorway through which God gains access to us,” as the Prior of the Grande Chartreuse said about Brother Roger.
3. Jeremiah remained unselfish to the end. He never wanted to get any benefits out of his vocation; he never claimed he had done enough or that he had the right to think about himself now. When, after the fall of Jerusalem, he was given a safe-conduct, he could have saved himself or worked out an honorable situation for himself. No, his place was among the few who were going to stay in Jerusalem, in solidarity even with their anguish. There was no question for him of taking back the life he had given. It was enough for him to know that that life itself would henceforth be “the prize of war in every place to which he would go” (45:5).
Experience teaches that lack of self-interest makes a person solid – solid and free at the same time.