In Jeremiah 10, the prophet addresses the people's idols directly, as so many prophets do, but he uses a powerful image to do so. He says,
These trees are like scarecrows in cucumber gardens. They aren't able to speak. They have to be carried, because they can't walk. Don't be afraid of them. They can't harm you. They can't do you any good either.
One of the things about a passage like this that we must take note of is the multiple layers of meaning, the many metaphors that are being used. It's easy to say that this is a passage just about idols, particularly since it follows a description of how these idols are made by human hands, but there's more going on here than just that.
For example, Jeremiah chooses to specify a cucumber garden. The people grew many kinds of gardens, for all different reasons, but the prophet says this particular garden grows cucumbers. Why? Cucumbers are a staple of a Mediterranean diet; they go with almost everything. The people would have been very familiar with them. They also, however, are mostly water and have essentially no nutritional value whatsoever. It's not like their chock-full of anything; they're just water. And a little bit of a flavor. Maybe. So our scarecrows, our idols, stand over something that's essentially empty anyway, but we've convinced ourselves is so central to our diets. And wouldn't it be that its emptiness is in non-living water?
Another layer here is the image of the tree. The idols most often discussed in the Old Testament look like humans, animals, celestial bodies; there aren't many, if any, that are specifically trees. It's a metaphor for the way they are rooted down into our culture and then stood up to tower over all that we do. But the time is also coming when we will talk about another tree, a tree on which our Lord was hung, casting all of the holy city in His shadow.
What's striking about reading this is how easily these words of the prophet Jeremiah condemn us even today. We would laugh at this and say there's no way, but what the people of Jeremiah's time are doing with their idols is precisely the same thing we are doing with ours - it's just that we call ours "Jesus."
It's that we have this God who hung on this tree, and we spend our lives setting the Cross up over our gardens, as though it is some magical talisman. As though its mere presence, as an icon or even as an idol, does something to scare the bad things away. We stake this Cross into our cucumber gardens, into all these places that we have decided are so integral to our way of life, such a central part of who we are, but they are empty things in and of themselves. They are non-living water.
And we stake this Cross in the ground to protect them, but we do not allow this Jesus to speak. We do not expect Him to walk. He's supposed to just stand there, wherever we put Him, and do Jesus things. He's supposed to stand over our toil of emptiness and, without a word, without a movement, heal the sick. Strengthen the weak. Free the imprisoned. Feed the hungry. Yes, we ask Him to stand over our cucumber gardens and feed the hungry.
How foolish we are!
But this is how we live. This is how we do it. This is how we relate to our God, as nothing more than a scarecrow. And we call this "faithfulness."
We call this something, even though it is nothing at all. We rely on its power, even though it is powerless. We say that this is what God desires of us, but it is nowhere close. This Jesus, He cannot harm us here. He cannot condemn us. He cannot call us to account. But, as Jeremiah so poignantly points out, He cannot help us, either.
So we keep moving our scarecrow, trying to find the best place to put Him. Trying to find the best ground in which to stake this tree. And when it seems we have found just the spot, when it seems we have discovered just where best to put our Jesus in our cucumber garden, we discover the emptiness of the way that we do this. Then, something most heinous happens.
We stuff our scarecrow with dry theology in order to try to puff Him up, in order to try to make Him more intimidating.
And it's as laughable to the world as any idol talk is to us. Our God is powerless here, our precious treasure empty. The world knows it. God knows it. The only ones who haven't seemed yet to catch on are us, the so-called "faithful."