Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

It was for all intents and purposes the end of the world.

October 10, 2010

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

It was for all intents and purposes the end of the world.

At least that is what it must have felt like. It was the end of life as it was known in Jerusalem, in Judah, in all that was left of David’s monarchy. Verses 2 and 3 are omitted from the lectionary, perhaps because the names are unfamiliar. Imagine if their story was our story:

Our national government has just collapsed as the result of an invading foreign power. There is no remnant of the military. There is no government. The President, First Lady,Cabinet and Congress have all been exiled. All of the artists in New York and steel workers in Pittsburgh were separated from their families and exiled as well.

To these terrified and shell shocked exiles, the prophet Jeremiah sent a pastoral letter. That the letter came from Jeremiah was a sign of just how bad things were. Jeremiah is now a major prophet due to the size of the scroll that bears his name and words. But in his time he was a small town boy trying to make it big in the big city, and by all apparent measures, he was a failure.

Jeremiah was from Anathoth in the tribal lands of Benjamin. Benjamin was the home of the failed monarch Saul, and the town itself bore the name of the Canaanite goddess, Anat. Jeremiah had tried to make it as a prophet but things did not turn out quite as he expected. In chapter 26 he was nearly put to death for his sermon in the temple court. He was slapped in the face and bound into stocks (chapter 20), imprisoned (chapter 37), and thrown in a cistern (chapter 38). In addition, he was apparently illiterate; his messages were preserved by the scribe Baruch who even accompanied him into his eventual exile. (See the story of the production and revision of Jeremiah’s scroll in chapter 36; see also chapter 45.)

Jeremiah was in a position to send this letter because he was left behind in the deportations; the Babylonians did not think he was worth the effort of deporting. When Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem, he razed and looted the Temple, took the chief priest hostage and exiled (or killed) everyone else. Verse 1 of our reading says that the surviving elders, priests, and prophets were all in Babylon. The religious establishment was disbanded, traumatized, and in need of a prophetic word themselves. Jeremiah was never a formal part of that establishment. He was an outsider prophet. And now he was in a position to serve God by serving the people who beat, imprisoned, and rejected him.

Jeremiah was not called to serve in the splendor of the temple supported by the coffers of the monarchy although that might have been his preference. (In 5:4-5, Jeremiah dismisses the poor and asks to be sent to the rich!) Jeremiah was called to serve amid the devastation and destruction of everything he knew. And in his moment in the spotlight, when he could have spoken as the second coming of Moses, proclaiming liberation from Babylon and a second Exodus to the Promised Land, Jeremiah had some bad news. The people were not going anywhere.

The word of God through Jeremiah to the exiles in 29:5-6 was to plan on staying in Babylon for the foreseeable future. They are to build homes, settle down, get married, have children, and watch their children get married.

The lesson ends with an even more surprising word in verse 7, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” God’s word to the exiles was to seek the welfare of their conquerors; to pray for them for their fates are inextricably bound up together.

God’s word to Jeremiah is particularly striking given the utter lack of repentance or any attempt of peace-making on the part of the Babylonians. Other texts in this week’s readings also address relationships between insiders and outsiders: The alternate first lesson in 2 Kings 5 invokes the Arameans with whom Israel fought a series of border wars. The Gospel, Luke 18:9-14, invokes the Samaritans, the descendants of the Israelite monarchy who survived the Assyrian invasion and deportation and who intermarried with other subject peoples so that their Judean identity was stripped from them and their descendants.

A necessary post-script to this text is that the Babylonians eventually fell to the Persians. The Judeans passed into Persian control and would not be self-governing again in the biblical narrative. Some of Jeremiah’s new flock could not believe that God would preserve God’s people in Babylon or those who were left behind in Judah. They ran to Egypt (of all places!) and took Jeremiah with them (43:4-7).

Most Western readers will not be able to identify with the originating context of Jeremiah’s epistle. Some readers – African Americans descended from abducted Africans, Native Americans living on reservations distant from their ancestral lands – may identify strongly with the exilic context. In the broader American national context, we are war with forces inside and outside of our borders. And God through Jeremiah calls us to pray for those whom we see as our enemies on national and international scales – for those whose religion and culture are different from ours and those who are bent on our destruction.

When I began this exegesis with the contemporary paraphrase of verses 2-3, I intentionally did not name a specific country as the occupying force, not wishing to name any human community as an enemy. The truth is that in 2010 there are real, frightening, international conflicts. There are nations and communities that would see others destroyed and would see us destroyed – nationally, politically, religiously, socially, and economically. God’s word is still to pray for our enemies, for in their welfare we will find our welfare.