Have you ever seen those “You had one job!” memes on social media? You know, there’s a picture of the double line down the middle of the road; only one line veers off crazily from the center.
Or there’s a big grocery display celebrating Oreo’s 100th anniversary, but the display is filled with boxes of Nilla Wafers.
Or there’s a t-shirt with a picture of the continent of Africa on the front, underneath which is printed “Asia.”
Or the “Get Ready for Winter” display, loaded with flip-flops.
Or a picture of an American flag on the bottom of a box, under which is written “Made in China.”
You had one job! Just one thing you’re responsible for, but you couldn’t even get that right.
If your job is judged a failure or success by your ability to accomplish one task … word to the wise: You should do everything in your power to accomplish that one task. Tireless pursuit of one thing. That’s your job.
I remember after my dad died and his pickup truck became mine. The first thing I noticed was that it didn’t have power windows or power door locks—which is odd, because it feels like that’s probably standard equipment anymore on even the cheapest vehicles.
But, I figured, whatever. My first car was a ’72 Pontiac Le Mans—and there was nothing power on that car … except the engine, which was a beast. So, no big thing.
Moreover, the reason the truck was so appealing was that it had functioning air conditioning—which I’d gone without in a vehicle for about five years—a first world luxury, admittedly, but one whose ability to make life in July semi-bearable is not to be underestimated. So, it occurred to me that I could put up with not having a fancy key fob to lock and unlock the doors. I could roll my windows up manually, like the beleaguered generations of car owners had for years.
Then I thought, you know, if the windows and the door locks are manual, they’re much less likely to break, right? I mean, simplicity of design often means that it will be more durable and dependable over the long haul. The fewer moving parts the better.
Remember when they used to sell T.V. sets with built in VCRs and DVD players? Ever have on of those? The problem with those sets wasn’t that they broke—everything breaks eventually, at least according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics—but that they broke in stages. First the VCR goes out—but you rationalize it by saying, “It’s cool. VCRs are obsolete anyway.”
Then the DVD player stops working, and you console yourself with the thought that “It’s fine. I’ve got an Apple TV. I’ll just watch stuff digitally.”
But not long after the DVD player goes, the picture starts getting fuzzy. And you start wondering if this thing was engineered to be a huge Rube Goldberg machine of despair.
The more complex a thing is, the greater the chances that something will go wrong—setting off a chain reaction of bugs that end in system failure.
Software programmers know this. One little error in code can make extraordinarily complex systems shut down. Remember the worldwide scare over Y2K—the fear that a shortcut in the code to save two digit places might shut the world down as the new millennium dawned?
Of course it didn’t happen, and some of you are still trying to work your way through the pallets of Dinty Moore Beef Stew and powdered milk you stored up in your apocalypse bunkers. But the fact that the whole world might be technically affected by such a small thing underlines just how fragile complex systems are—and how much damage they can potentially inflict if one job doesn’t get done.
I suspect Jeremiah’s thinking along those lines in our text this morning. Suffice it to say, things aren’t going well for God’s people as Jeremiah writes. They’ve endured a string of bad rulers, who’ve caught God’s attention with their treachery.
Our text opens with God saying, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! … It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings.”
Kinda warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it? Makes you feel all fuzzy inside.
But why is God so mad at these guys?
Well, all the way back in chapter 22 God is addressing a series of kings, laying down for them the standard by which they will be judged as rulers of God’s people. According to Jeremiah, those who rule have one chief responsibility. They have one job:
“Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David … But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the LORD, that his house shall become a desolation” (22:3–5).
Want to know what a good ruler looks like in the eyes of God? There’s only one measure: Do no wrong or violence to the alien in the land, the orphan, and the widow … and don’t shed innocent blood.
Seems pretty simple, right?
A little justice. That shouldn’t be so hard. But apparently, it’s not easy doing the right thing when you’re used to getting your way. But God’s not having it:
”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” (22:13)
And God’s pretty adamant about it. To the king of Judah, just a few verses prior in chapter 21, God says:
”Execute justice in the morning, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed, or else my wrath will go forth like fire, and burn, with no one to quench it, because of your evil doings” (21:12).
God’s not playing. If you rule the people, you’ve got one job.
Notice that God didn’t say,
“You who rule … act with suspicion and distrust, and make sure to guard the stock portfolios of the oppressor. And make certain that the alien in your land runs into the wall of your fear and hatred, prevent widows from obtaining access to food and healthcare and housing that should be reserved only for the deserving. And please, whatever you do, don’t fall for all that sentimental political correctness when it comes to orphans—who are lazy and shiftless by nature; they only want to take advantage of the system. Because, let’s face it, the only innocent blood belongs to people who look like us. So if you have to shed blood, make sure it belongs to people who don’t have any power, who don’t have the protections that come with being white, or belonging to the right religion, or coming from the right country.”
By the time we get to our text for this morning, God has set down the standard by which the rulers will be judged, and issued the verdict that Judah’s last several kings have fallen short:
*”Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! … It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings.”
In the words of President Obama, “Come on, man!”
Look, the reality is, you had one job! But you couldn’t even do that.
So, God is going to set up a new ruler, going to unleash a new reign of justice:
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (23:5).
Again, notice that God doesn’t say, “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and self-deal, and shall execute plans that ensure the rich will benefit at the expense of the poor, and the healthy at the expense of the sick, and the well-situated at the expense of those who didn’t have the good sense to be born to the right parents.”
One job. Protect the most vulnerable.
God doesn’t say that the ruler after God’s own heart is the one who will be vigilant in ensuring that everyone holds the right theology, that everybody believes all the right stuff. God doesn’t promise to bless the shepherd who vows to police everyone’s bedroom, in addition to all the public restrooms. God isn’t holding out for a leader who promises to throw the most people of color in jail in the name of “law and order.”
The days are surely coming. God is about to do a new thing—to unleash a reign in which those who now live in darkened fear will walk bravely in the sun.
A reign in which those whose sexual orientation or gender expression is no longer a pretense for violence and hostility, but is a matter for celebration of God’s amazing creative imagination.
A reign in which those afraid of being deported, assaulted, disenfranchised, dropped from their insurance, unable to pay their electric bills or buy their medications, afraid of being cast out, thrown away, shuffled off to jail will enjoy freedom from dread, the confidence that they enjoy God’s favor.
Thomas Long tells a story about the time during the prime days of the struggle for racial integration in the South.
“Black civil rights workers — ‘freedom riders’ they were called — would travel on buses from city to city, challenging segregationist laws. Sometimes they were greeted with violence; often they were arrested. In one town, a bus was halted by the police and the passengers booked and jailed. While they were there, the jailers did everything possible to make them miserable and to break their spirits. They tried to deprive them of sleep with noise and light during the nights. They intentionally over-salted their food to make it distasteful. They gradually took away their mattresses, one by one, hoping to create conflict over the remaining ones.
“Eventually the strategies seemed to be taking hold. Morale in the jail cells was beginning to sag. One of the jailed leaders, looking around one day at his dispirited fellow prisoners, began softly to sing a spiritual. Slowly, others joined in until the whole group was singing at the top of their voices and the puzzled jailers felt the entire cellblock vibrating with the sounds of a joyful gospel song. When they went to see what was happening, the prisoners triumphantly pushed the remaining mattresses through the cell bars, saying, ‘You can take our mattresses, but you can’t take our souls.’
“It was the hymn-singers who were in jail, but it was the jailers who were guilty. It was the prisoners who were suffering, but the jailers who were defeated. It was the prisoners who were in a position of weakness, but it was the broken bigoted world of the jailers and of all the [kings] of history that was perishing.”
The days are surely coming, says the LORD. I’m about to do a new thing. The old prejudices and fears of those who rule the land are about to give way to the dawning of a new day, where the shackles of oppression will be broken, and those who’ve been taken advantage of, who’ve been the objects upon which the powerful have projected their terror will know the protection of God’s hand.
I was in a meeting with a rabbi last week; he noted that there are 613 commandments in the Hebrew scriptures. Wanna know which one gets repeated over and over again, more than three dozen times, more than any other commandment?
Protect the alien in your land, the widow, and the orphan.
If you’re a ruler, you’ve got one job.
But see, here’s the thing, it’s not just the rulers who are to be judged by their protection of the vulnerable—it’s all the people who live under the banner of God’s name, who enjoy the shade of peace and privilege. We—you and I—we are responsible for helping to establish systems of justice that preserve the earth, that offer refuge to those most at risk, systems that reflect the intentions of God’s new reign of peace and justice.
Wanna know if your life is successful in God’s eyes?
You’ve got one job.