Jeremiah’s confrontation with the prophet Hananiah in Jeremiah, Chapter 28, is often cited as a guide to the discernment of spirits, as a way of resolving the conflict of two or more opposing points of view in Church leadership, or at least in the uncertainty of authentic Church teaching. Naturally, we want to point out that this historical event takes places between the first attacks of Nebuchadnezzar on the city of Jerusalem and the final collapse of the city in 587 BC. These historical events precede by centuries the coming of Christ and the foundations of the Church. It would be more accurate to say that these two prophets (Jeremiah and Hananiah) represent the convergence of different convictions about the work of God according to the sacred covenant established with Israel (after all, it is the cataclysmic destruction of Jerusalem that closes this period of prophetic activity).
Hananiah is a popular figure, whose followers are bolstered by his predictions that Judah will resist and are soon to win out against their aggressors because God is with them. Jeremiah, on the other hand, is the realist, and it is to Jeremiah that God has revealed the long-term destiny of the Chosen People. They are to come under the Babylonian rule (signified by the self-imposed yoke Jeremiah wore), and not in a few short years, but after 70 years, God will return the People to their land from their exile.
What are we to make of this "prophets’ duel?" "Cheap grace" is a term we hear now and then. It refers to the good fortune that some people experience at no great personal cost. Hananiah was a spokesperson for the naïve view that God would rescue the Chosen people simply because they were God’s people. Jeremiah, who could see the history of infidelity among the people, but especially among their leaders, proclaimed the eventual collapse of their religious society and the subsequent period of purification needed to restore a new generation of faithful believers.
This reading challenges us to see the inevitable breakdown of the social-religious fabric whenever a people are unwilling to strive for the goodness and piety of a holy people. To maintain a struggle against the modern forms of idolatry and injustice is to bend our backs to the yoke of penance and disciplined living, only to discover in God’s time, that the burdensome yoke has become "light" and "easy" (Mt 11:30).
Fr. Arthur Carrillo is the local leader of the Passionist Community in Houston, Texas.