Fickle hearts

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.

The contrast Jeremiah presents is stark, the coin he holds up has only two sides; it’s either/or. Either/or talk makes me uneasy. You’re either with us or against us. You’re either with us or you’re one of them. Either/or talk divides the world into binaries – black and white, red and blue, us and them – and keeps our minds from noticing the many colors, sounds, perspectives and traditions that actually constitute the world.

But I don’t hear Jeremiah and Jesus as peddlers of simplistic world portrayals. I hear them speak with urgency about fundamental choices and ultimate outcomes. They talk about life in contrasts of arid wasteland and lush fruitfulness, of blessing and woe. “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make their flesh their strength,” Jeremiah warns us. Hearts turned away from God, the fountain of life and blessing, and relying on human strength alone – whatever shape that may take, economic power, political influence, military might, technological expertise – hearts turned away from God lead to a shrublike existence in parched places. But hearts turned toward God, hearts trusting in God, hearts open and receptive and obedient to God’s will and purposes lead to life’s flourishing and fruitfulness. Those whose hearts are turned toward God are like a tree planted by streams of water. Even during a dry season, its thirsty roots reach deep and find moisture and nourishment. They are not anxious when drought comes.

You look at the two scenes and you wonder, who on earth would choose a path that leads away from the source of life? Ask Jeremiah, and he’ll cry for an hour.

So much depends on where the heart turns. And the heart, that part of our inner life where our intentions hatch and our decisions are made, the heart turns quite a bit. The heart is fickle, devious above all else, perverse, according to Jeremiah. “Who can understand it?” he asks, implying that no one can. It turns this way and that way, we don’t know how.

We have a lively debate in our culture over what constitutes lush, fruitful life. Our answers differ widely, but most Americans – regardless of age, gender, political affiliation, education, or income – would agree on this: every person is free to live the way they want as long as it doesn’t interfere with the freedom of others. We admire mavericks, creative entrepreneurs, and those fearless explorers who boldly go where no one has gone before. We value freedom and autonomy, and we don’t want to live lives controlled by others. We follow our hearts. We create and follow our own paths, directed by our own will and our own goals, pulled by our own dreams, energized by our own desires, in pursuit of our own accomplishments, with as little or as much concern for our neighbors as we see fit. We make our own respective self the measure of our lives. And the heart turns this way and that way, we don’t know how.

The understanding of reality in scripture is not self-centered but thoroughly God-centered. Where we think of the good life in terms of self-fulfillment, the biblical witnesses speak of the purposes of God for us and for all, and the unfolding of God’s plan for creation. Where in our culture prosperity has become a matter of getting as much of what you want as fast as you can, Jeremiah and other witnesses in scripture tell us of prosperity as the fruitfulness of life rooted in God. They see being autonomous as being alienated from God, from other people, and from creation. To be autonomous is not to be free, but to be cut off, and to perish in isolation like rootless tumbleweed. Our hearts need to turn, we need to turn. We need to let ourselves be reoriented toward God and let our restless hearts rest in God.

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord,” says Jeremiah. “Where is the evidence?” you may ask, adding your cautious hesitation or your protest to that of generations who have gone before. “The wicked boast of the desires of their heart, those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord. Their ways prosper at all times,” we read in Psalm 10. There is plenty of evidence that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. God’s people proclaim among the nations, “The Lord reigns,” and the nations laugh and continue to worship the idols of power, greed, and lust.

Jesus stood on a level place when he taught us, saying,

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

He didn’t say that poverty is a blessing.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

He didn’t say that hunger is a blessing.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

He didn’t say that tears are a blessing.

He said to the poor disciples, You are blessed, for the reign of God is not a distant dream but already a present reality, and you are a part of it. You are blessed, because the logic of the world is not divine law. You are blessed, because the reign of God is not a reflection of the world, but its transformation in glory, and you are witnessing the beginnings of it.

“God has a preferential love for the poor,” wrote theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, “not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.”[1] The world pushes the poor to the margins and leaves them out of the conversations about the future, but they are at the center of God’s attention and of Jesus’ mission. The good news proclaimed to the poor is the assurance that God is for them. In a world governed by the rules of the wicked, the poor and the hungry may be overlooked and forgotten, but God remembers them. The good news proclaimed to the poor is that the kingdom belongs to them and not to those who act as if they owned the world. The good news proclaimed to the poor is the community of Christ, a community where justice, equality, and compassion are living realities.

Jesus said to the rich disciples,

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

He didn’t say that the rich are cursed.

Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

He didn’t say that having enough to eat is cursed.

Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

He didn’t say that laughter is cursed.

How can the rich be blessed? You know the biggest dilemma of gift shopping: What can you give the person who already has everything? Shopping for a bridal shower is easy: they’re registered; they ask for pots and pans, silver, glass and china, towels and linens, mixer, blender, coffee grinder.

But what do you get your bachelor uncle for his birthday? He already has everything and proudly declares that he doesn’t need anything. That is, on a very human scale, God’s dilemma with the rich.

Wealth becomes a curse when it cuts us off from the needs of others, from the community of life, and from God. Wealth becomes a curse when we sit back and say to ourselves, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry!”[2] Wealth becomes a curse when we tell ourselves that the only thing God could give us is to live forever with the body of a 27-year old.

But “Woe to you” is not Jesus’ only or final word to the rich. He proclaims good news to the poor, and it is not inevitably bad news for the rich. It is the good news of God’s reign, the good news of a new community in Christ where compassion, justice, and mutual love are living realities.

The way of proud self-reliance is cursed, it ends in an uninhabited wasteland. But the way of trust in God is blessed. So much depends on where the heart turns. And the heart is fickle, devious above all else, perverse, according to Jeremiah. “Who can understand it?” he asks, implying that no one can. It turns this way and that way, we don’t know how.

But God searches the heart; to God all hearts are open, all desires known, and from God no secrets are hid, we sometimes confess in our prayers. God does not wait until our restless hearts finally rest in God to dwell in us. God comes to us, again and again, searching, knowing, nudging, challenging and affirming, through the words of scripture and the movements of the Spirit, calling us back, again and again, to the way of blessing, the way of Christ.

The real challenge, then, is to trust, and not to fear, the One who searches and knows the heart.

To trust, and not to fear, the One at work among us and within us.

The real challenge is to let God’s reconciling love reign in our hearts and in the world by following Jesus on the way.

[1] Quoted in Culpepper, Luke (NIB)

[2] Lk 12:19

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