Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A jailed preacher. A signed contract. Words buried in dirt.

Amos 6:4
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall. Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

September 29, 2019

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

A jailed preacher. A signed contract. Words buried in dirt.

Locking up the prophet does not prevent him from receiving and enacting God’s words of transformation, promise, and new creation. But he does not do it alone.

The heading (Jeremiah 32:1) pairs efficacious divine word with two regnal dates, one the penultimate year of Judah’s last Davidic king, the other long into the reign of the Babylonian monarch whose military achievements will spell death and destruction for Jerusalem.

The dual dating shows up the weakness of Judah’s monarchy and locates the scene at the cusp of two eras, between a tenuous freedom and captivity. Yet within the (arguably loose) timeline of the book of Jeremiah, this scene is dislocated. As we move forward in the book, we will move backward again in time, before the reign of Zedekiah to his predecessor Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36), then gradually forward to a period earlier in Zedekiah’s reign (Jeremiah 37—39:1). Narratively, we come to this cusp, this almost-ending, then back away from it before we come up to it again, and finally cross the threshold into exile. The investment in hope and future this passage narrates and elicits will help equip the audience to face the realities of destruction and slaughter that is yet to unfold.

The narrator places in parallel the siege of Jerusalem and the incarceration of the prophet (verses 2-3a). This parallel highlights the surprising agency of prophet and people alike in circumstances designed to curtail their freedom and limit their power.

An unimaginative king interrogates the prophet he has tried to lock down (verses 3b-5). Jeremiah’s response and the boundaries of the lectionary passage take the focus off the king, who will end his own days as a captive in Babylon, and focus instead on an unexpected future for the land of Judah and its people. This future will not be imagined out of nothing. It will be imagined out of the refuse pile of lost property, human relationships gone sour, and a devastated land.

The word of the LORD begins its work in this passage by preparing Jeremiah for the visit of his cousin Hanamel. Hanamel will instruct Jeremiah to purchase a field in Anathoth that Hanamel has been forced to sell, risking the loss of their family’s inheritance and stake in the land (Jeremiah 32:7). As next of kin to Hanamel, Jeremiah has the right and responsibility of go’el, “redeemer” or protector, a role anticipated in the legislation of Leviticus (Leviticus 25:24-25). There, the right of redemption is grounded in the claim that the land is God’s, and therefore inalienable. Jeremiah narrates to the king that Hanamel came to him just as the word had foretold, confirming the word for him (Jeremiah 32:8). Jeremiah’s emphasis on the veracity of the word suggests that Hanamel’s visit—and request—was surprising even to him.

Indeed, the reader of Jeremiah has never before heard of this Hanamel. But the reader has heard about the people of Anathoth: they have been trying to kill Jeremiah because of his prophecies (Jeremiah 11:21), and God has declared doom on them (11:23). We do not know if Hanamel was among those who sought Jeremiah’s life, but we know that for Jeremiah Anathoth is a place of danger and rejection. It is also Jeremiah’s home (1:1; 29:27). The cousin who comes to him in prison presses Jeremiah to buy a field that links past to future, betrayal to belonging.

The command to “buy” occurs in three passages in the book of Jeremiah. In the first instance, God commands Jeremiah to “buy” a linen cloth, wear it on his body (Jeremiah 13:1), then hide it in a cleft of rock (13:4). When Jeremiah retrieves it, it has rotted (13:7). God informs Jeremiah that the pride of Judah and Jerusalem will be ruined like the cloth was ruined (13:8-11). In the second instance, God commands Jeremiah to “buy” an earthen jar (19:1) and go to the valley of Hinnom, to the Potsherd gate (19:2), and break it in the sight of onlookers (19:10), while declaring “so will [the Lord] break this people and this city” (19:11). Each of these prophetic actions functioned symbolically to presage the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem and highlight the rupture between God and God’s people.

The third occurrence is Hanamel’s command to Jeremiah to “buy” the field at Anathoth (32:7, 8, 25). This pointed repetition suggests a close relationship between the three prophetic actions. The third marks a reversal of the ruin and rupture portended by the first two. Buying and burying will now preserve, not destroy (32:14). The vessel will endure and will not be broken.

As Jeremiah narrates the actions he took to redeem the field, notice the prominent role of witnesses, who also sign the deed (verse 12), and of Baruch, whom Jeremiah charges to bury the deed and its copy in an earthen jar (verse 14). Hanamel, Baruch, the signatories, and “all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard” (verse 12) witness and participate in the future’s unfolding.  

Jeremiah’s act of redemption affirms his ties to a place and people that had rejected him. His charge to Baruch contains an oracle that widens the scope from the field of Hanamel to the future social and economic flourishing of “this land” (Jeremiah 32:15; see 32:44). Jeremiah’s redemption of the field thus anticipates and inaugurates God’s will for the land as a whole and the people who will live in it.

Circumscribing the prophet or preacher, cutting off resources, and even incarcerating bearers of truth will not stop the word of the Lord from wreaking change.

Preaching is as much about praxis as about word. Prophets and preachers can’t be afraid to wade into economic and social realities.

The limits of what Jeremiah alone can do are real. The prophetic drama is interactive. Witnesses, participants, and partners share responsibility for proclaiming and bringing the word to fruition.