Jeremiah 4:11-28, Psalm 51 "What is True Repentance?"
Jeremiah 32:1-15 "Are You Ready to Buy the Farm?"

Jeremiah 8 "Is There a Balm in Gilead?"

This is the final edit on Saturday, September 18.  I had a tough struggle this week with Jeremiah and my own life, so I am very late getting this out.

The phrase “balm in Gilead” probably refers to a resin from balsam trees that was used in medicine and perfumes.  In ancient times it was known as “balsam of Mecca.”  There are only three mentions in the Bible related to Balm of Gilead.  The first was in Genesis 37, where a caravan of men from Gilead took Joseph from his brothers and carried him off to slavery in Egypt with their cargo of balsam.  The other two references are both in Jeremiah, and each refers to the medicinal balm.  Both times the prophet says that Israel is looking for a balm to help with their problems, but in each case it lacks the power to bring about the desired healing.  Jeremiah’s reference is similar to a common phrase today, “You are just putting a band aid on the problem.”  In medical terms, Jeremiah saw Israel’s condition as needing a heart transplant, not medicinal balm.  In his famous metaphor in chapter 31, he hopes that Israel will have a new heart, one made of flesh and not of stone. God’s word will be written on this new heart and placed within the body so Israel will be God’s people again. 


Jeremiah’s intent is opposite the spiritual hymn.  Beware of the balm in Gilead for it is not enough.  Don’t settle for half measures, for a more radical transformation is needed.  This passage speaks to us when we are looking for easy and painless solutions to big problems.  The 1965 play Balm in Gilead captures this message more clearly.  Lanford Wilson was a young playwright who had come to New York City from the Ozarks. (which should be a play!)  He was fascinated by the people he overheard in all-night coffee shop on Manhattan's Upper West Side peopled by a makeshift community of dealers, junkies, hustlers, prostitutes, dreamers and runaways. The plot loosely centers on Joe, a cynical drug dealer, and Darlene, a naive new arrival to the big city, over the course of three days. Darlene left the Midwest after a divorce and finds herself completely ill-equipped to handle life in New York’s underworld, and she becomes increasingly vulnerable to the attentions of the various low-rent men who hang around the café looking for an easy target. Joe seduces Darlene hours after they meet.  Joe, seeing in Darlene a chance for a fresh start, briefly considers giving up dealing, but he has a huge debt to a loan shark named Chuckles to take care of first.  Just as he is about to return Chuckles' money, he is killed by one of the dealer's thugs. The play ends with all the principal characters droning their lines from the first scene over and over again in a circle, suggesting that their lives are stuck in a demoralizing rut.  


I believe the tragic play highlights things that we seek as a balm that really do not solve our problems.  Drugs are at the center of the story, which is the most dangerous balm people seek for their troubles.  We have spent billions of dollars combating terrorism, when drunk drivers create more than four 9/11 scale tragedies per year. Taking on debt in the hopes of getting out of our financial problems is another false balm, whether the money comes from loan sharks or Master Card or financing our public debt by selling treasuries to China.   Many people seek balm in a relationship, believing that another person can solve their problems.  Someone else can make them whole.  In some cases people use a relationship to find someone else to blame for their problems.  Most of all the play warns against half-hearted hopes that aren’t based on anything.  The most useless phrases in the English language are “I wish…if only…when I have more time…someday I will…tomorrow I will…next week.”


What Wilson captured as a playwright in the 1960s watching a slick crowd in an all night diner is consistent with Jeremiah and has lessons for our times.  The prophecies in Jeremiah cover a 20 year span in Israel’s history and chronicle the move from national hubris and overconfidence to the ultimate national destruction.  While the destruction of Jerusalem looked cataclysmic in 587 BC, from Jeremiah’s point of view it was the result of two decades of slow failure at all levels of national life – it was a foreign policy failure, as well as a failure in values, spirituality and faith.  The nation was like a tree rotting in its core.  From the outside it still looked like a strong oak, with its branches spreading upwards and leaves providing a canopy of shade.  But when Babylon came with its armies, it was like a storm that exposed the inner weakness of the trunk, which had been hollowed out and was ready to crumble.  


Jeremiah speaks to me because many of the issues today are potential cataclysms moving in slow motion.  World population growth is slowly using up all kinds of resources-oil, forests, iron, farmland and dozens of rare earth metals needed for industrial processes.  We keep wanting more and more, and it is becoming economically unsustainable and environmentally disastrous.  Thomas Friedman wrote a column in the New York Times last Sunday titled “We Are Number 11!” that had this to say about where our problems came from:



We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. …Ask yourself: What made our Greatest Generation great? First, the problems they faced were huge, merciless and inescapable: the Depression, Nazism and Soviet Communism. Second, the Greatest Generation’s leaders were never afraid to ask Americans to sacrifice. Third, that generation was ready to sacrifice, and pull together, for the good of the country. And fourth, because they were ready to do hard things


Our generation’s leaders never dare utter the word “sacrifice.” All solutions must be painless. Which drug would you like? A stimulus from Democrats or a tax cut from Republicans? A national energy policy?  Too hard. For a decade we sent our best minds not to make computer chips in Silicon Valley but to make poker chips on Wall Street, while telling ourselves we could have the American dream — a home — without saving and investing, for nothing down and nothing to pay for two years. 


I like Thomas Friedman and am more like him than Jeremiah.  Friedman and I are both essentially optimists who believe that with sound decisions, mutual sacrifice, courage and creativity, we can still solve our most intractable problems before it is too late.  But the longer we wait to solve our problems, both national and personal, the harder it becomes.  I realize that Jeremiah was ultimately right in his day, which motivates me in my own. 


I believe there is a balm in Gilead.  When I sing the spiritual hymn with my congregation I can feel it soothing my spiritual wounds and restoring me to faith and hope, just like aloe salve soothes a burn.


I still believe Jesus is the answer for the wounds of the world and for my own wounds.  He is my Way, my Truth, and my Life.  The Balm in Gilead I receive is a marvelous gift and it keeps me going every day.  At the same time Jeremiah reminds me that life is not about sitting around waiting for my medicine.  Band aids and half –measures will not bring the cure we need.  Jesus heals me for a reason.  I’m called to love in return with all my heart, soul and mind, to extend love to my neighbor in gratitude.  Jesus the healer also said, “Be not lukewarm, but be hot or cold to my message.  Pick up your cross and follow me.”  Discipleship is costly, as both Jesus and Bonhoeffer remind us.  But I know of no other way, no other healing balm, that helps me meet the daily challenges.  So I listen to the spiritual and will try to sing it every day this week:

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work's in vain; but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.