Commentary on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
The prophet’s letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29, which has travelled across a vast distance in order to bring comfort and much needed advice to those who find themselves under imperial rule a long way from home, emerges as a powerful testimony to resilience and survival.
This letter reflects a traumatized community who has lost everything: their loved ones, their homes, their beloved city Jerusalem, their language and culture in addition to the familiar expressions of their religion connected to the temple that had been destroyed. The underlying question addressed by Jeremiah’s letter is one that may also live in many other uprooted individuals and communities: How does one go on after such a devastating disaster?
Jeremiah 29:4-7 in particular exhibits something of the drive present in many refugee communities, then and since, that refuses to give up. It speaks of the desire to pick up the pieces of their lives and to start living again. The focus in verses 4-7 thus is on a range of activities that signal a return to some kind of normalcy — such as building houses, planting vineyards, celebrating weddings — and serves as a powerful testimony to resilience. These ordinary activities express the basic yearning for being safe and secure in the comfort of your own home, having enough food to eat and wine to gladden your heart, as expressed in Ecclesiastes 9:7. It also reflects a return of joy as evident in the reference to wedding celebrations that express hope for the future through shared food, wine, and community.
The fact that there is reference to one’s children and one’s children’s children’s weddings suggests that Judah will be in Babylon for the long haul. The exiles are hence encouraged by Jeremiah’s letter to make the best of their current situation. To build a life. They are also advised to actively work for the wellbeing or peace of their newly adopted city — even praying to God for the city to prosper. As immigrant communities throughout the ages know all too well, if the city prospers, it might just go well with them as well.
Except if it does not. The reality is that quite often immigrants are scapegoated when things go wrong – for example, the king of Poland’s decision to expel the Jews from Krakow at the end of the 15th century in response to a fire that destroyed a large part of the city, including the Jewish quarter.
The letter of Jeremiah thus serves also as a warning to immigrants in which they are urged to acquiesce, to fit in to the dominant culture, to avoid bringing attention to themselves. In this sense, the letter of Jeremiah may be considered as a piece of propaganda that serves the interests of the Empire to foster peace and quiet and squelch any possibility of resistance. The potentially harmful effects of such an interpretation should be kept in mind particularly in our current context in which immigrants all over the world are struggling to survive, and perhaps hopefully also to thrive, in the cities and towns in which they find themselves.
A further theme that is worth exploring in terms of Jeremiah’s letter to the Exiles, is the way in which the human activity of surviving and starting to live again is contrasted, or perhaps better, framed by God’s action of fulfilling promises, of bringing back the exiles to their own land, of providing them with a hope-filled future. God’s actions that frame the people’s attempts to survive compellingly demonstrate that God continues to be involved with the people even in the far-away land of Babylon. The God-human relationship is further evident in the people searching for God in Jeremiah 29:13 that can be understood as the resumption of religious activity. The reference to “finding God” is further testimony to the act of recognizing God’s presence even in Exile in Babylon. Actually, it is in the midst of those ordinary activities such as building, planting, and celebrating weddings that people see God’s hand. And even then, the emphasis falls upon God’s action, as it is God who will allow the people to find God (Jeremiah 29:14).
A final theme in this text is the reference to the true versus false prophets that also is the focus of the previous chapter, which outlines the battle between Jeremiah and Hananiah regarding who can claim to truly speak the word of God. In Jeremiah 29:8-9, Jeremiah warns the exiles not to listen to “the prophets and the diviners who are among you” for they are false prophets who deceive the exiles. Even when they, like Hananiah before them, say that it is God who is sending them, do not believe what they say for they are lying, according to Jeremiah.
The reason for this sharp admonition in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles has to do with the false prophets who advise exiles to not put down roots because the current situation of having been taken against their will to a land far away was only temporary and would be over within a year or two. In contrast, Jeremiah proclaims exactly the opposite message by stating that the exile would be very long indeed. For the current exiles, 70 years most definitely meant all of their lives, and probably also for the next generation. Thus, in Jeremiah’s mind, the wise thing to do would be to accept the situation for what it is, and to seek to live a meaningful life where they find themselves.
Many of us today may encounter situations that cannot be changed, no matter how much we would have wanted things to be different. The question then is how one, amidst such difficult circumstances, can live the best possible life, including daily practices that make life both possible and meaningful. Perhaps even more important than figuring out how to live amidst these less-than-perfect circumstances is the question of how one manages to find joy while being in exile.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of hope,
How often have we found ourselves in exile, separated from your presence! Restore us, and let us find you when we seek you. Amen.
A sound of angels, Christopher Tye
Adoramus te Christe, Giovanni Palestrina