Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The central experience of incarceration

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September 25, 2022

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

From time to time, the book of Jeremiah reminds readers of the national crisis that shapes it. The real and imagined power of the Babylonian Empire significantly impacted critical aspects of Judean life for decades. Chapter 32 calls readers to a moment in the siege of Jerusalem sometime before the Babylonians destroyed important public buildings, decapitated the national leadership, and impoverished the city. Sieges formed an important feature of warfare in the ancient world. An attacking army surrounded a city, which would normally have a wall, to block any entrance or exit into the city. Since most of the vital resources that supported life in a city such as food and water lay outside the city, nearing starvation, soldiers come out fighting in order to save their honor rather than die an ignoble death. A siege amounted to a form of imprisonment. 

As a form of collective incarceration, the lockdown of the city by an external force deprives people of access to important life-giving connections. The resources outside of the city wall that make city life possible consist in more than just food and water. Quite often, those involved human resources and access to the rhythms of traditional life would sustain city life. This chapter layers the experiences of incarceration. Both the city and Jeremiah face incarceration (32:2). The passage largely focuses on Jeremiah; that makes it easy to miss the collective experience of incarceration. The text, though, connects Jeremiah’s experience to the larger national experience in a rather clunky way.

The setting of a doubled incarceration seems like an editorial contrivance. Different pieces of the chapter do not hold together in a logically coherent way. A critical eye can reveal the editorial shaping that presents a single take away message in 32:15. Exactly how Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel makes his way through the siege is not clear (32:8). Asking why Jeremiah’s confinement would be necessary during the siege also begs the question of the luxury of devoting resources to confine him at such a critical time. Noting that the historical setting that the passage provides (32:1-3a), the property transaction (32:6-14), and the concluding meaning (32:15) do not form a seamless whole, helps one to understand how the passage functions in the context of the book. Therefore, the passage should not be read as an entry in Jeremiah’s journal, but instead the product of a later editor who shapes material for an audience that lives long after the immediate crisis of the siege. Restoration, renewal, and returning to normal life feature constantly in the minds of those who live on the other side of a crisis even if that time is a time that still bears the marks of the crisis.

Preachers wishing to honor the passage in its current form should feature the central experience of incarceration. Doing so avoids the oversimplification that Jeremiah knew that a better day was ahead and through this act laid the groundwork for all that was to come. As appealing an idea as this might be, preachers should recall the early days of the pandemic where lockdowns and the health indicators blocked any sense that a normal life would be possible in the near term. To be clear, while for most people recent lockdowns came close to incarceration, this moment of collective inconvenience in no way resembles actual incarceration that the passage references or that experienced by the millions that sit in prisons in the United States. Rushing easily for the hopeful exit misses how crises of various sorts close the door on possibilities. To the extent hope exists in the midst of crises, hope looks quite differently than the way it appears in this passage or as presented in the earnest attempts to “give people hope.” Since this passage does not reference a real-time experience but one that comes a later time, preachers should be cautious with trying to peddle hope that more often than not turns into wishful thinking.

This passage presents preachers with the chance to move their hearers’ experience from the recent inconveniences of the pandemic to the pressing problems of mass incarceration in the United States. Unlike most incarcerated persons who lack any financial resources, Jeremiah is able to respond to the dire request of his family members (32:9). In fact, Jeremiah is not a typical incarcerated person; he problem solves for his family on the outside. The presenting problem in this passage, though, allows for preachers to spend time looking at the loss of financial and other benefits that incarcerated people experience that make the thought that a hopeful future lies on the other side a fantasy. The passage never makes clear what precipitates Shallum’s pending loss of property. Yet preachers can pay attention to how incarceration of breadwinners and other income-bearing members of a family puts their livelihoods as well as property at risk. Without Jeremiah’s intervention the property would be easily lost to the family. Fortunately, Jeremiah had access to financial and other capital to save the day. Imagine the incarcerated person, subject to asset forfeiture, that places a family’s wealth at risk.

The passage gives readers the chance to imagine a different future for incarcerated persons. Jeremiah’s experience as an incarcerated person who provides a pathway for the community in the midst of crisis suggests that a way forward lies in transcending regimes of deprivation. Despite his confinement, Jeremiah remains connected to his family. In fact, this passage is the single one in the book that features his blood relatives. Jeremiah sits in the midst of the family drama with easy contact with family members to provide meaningful solutions to their problems. He not only has access to his financial wealth but he can also participate meaningfully in legal processes (32:10-12). The relationship with those working in the court of the guard seem supportive rather than adversarial (32:12). 

In every way, Jeremiah avoids the mechanisms of deprivation that all too often characterizes incarceration today. For some, greater deprivation is the point, since incarceration should not be a pleasant experience. Yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the belief still persists that mass and harsh incarceration ensures more secure communities. Jeremiah’s experience in this passage presents a vision of a different form of incarceration that provides access to family, resources, legal services, and other assets to ensure the stability of families and their wealth. Should preachers point to hope, the vision of an imprisoned man with the connections, resources, and support that Jeremiah possesses serves as a good example.

This passage places the burden upon the experience of the imprisoned Jeremiah to provide hope for the nation. A close reading of the conclusion of the passage shows that this is not possible. The connection between the preservation of deeds (32:14) and the restart of property transactions (32:15) is at best forced. The preservation of the deeds provides a record of the family’s property that would last for generations beyond the group present in the court of the guard. One family’s experience hardly makes for a national trend. In fact, generalizations that use exceptional examples tend to build up unattainable expectations. The pathway from imperial domination would not be achieved upon the back of a single man. Similarly, heroic incarcerated people should not be expected to serve as the models to maintain systems that create a false sense of national security. Ultimately, activities like property transactions returned to Jerusalem because of the collapse of the Babylonian Empire. The path to a life free of domination simply lies in the rejection of domination. Preachers, therefore, must reach outside of this passage for the signals that support the divine word to the prophet here of a future that looks like normalcy.