Commentary on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Jeremiah’s words here astonish, and yet they fulfill what he has proclaimed.
Jeremiah raised the specter of the Shiloh Temple in 7:12, 14 and 26:6, 9 for those who somehow feel God’s temple will protect them from foreign invasion. Even today this temple continues to be in utter ruins. Jeremiah had warned the people repeatedly that superstitious beliefs would get them nowhere. Now that catastrophe has finally struck, Jeremiah fundamentally changes gears and offers the people words of hope and a way forward. Jeremiah introduces the process of understanding God’s presence with us always and everywhere. Ezekiel will finish this, but today’s words are full of hope and point forward.
Verse 1 gives us a sense of how thorough the devastation of Jerusalem was. Priests, prophets, and elders are included among the recipients of his letter. We also sense that all of them did not survive the hardships of the siege of Jerusalem and the long journey to Babylon. Jeremiah reaches out to a battered and perhaps embittered remnant of the leadership in Babylon.
The heart of this material is in verses 4-7. Much controversy surrounds this material. Some read this in a very minimalistic fashion in which the Israelites are just being given advice for how to survive. Any resemblance to material in Deuteronomy is superficial. There is no universalism present in this material, and the Israelites are only supposed to be living in the land of Israel. Obviously, I disagree with this viewpoint. Israel had undergone exile in the past after the loss of the northern Kingdom of Israel in 722, but much of this was internal displacement from which they quickly recovered. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 587, the diaspora will begin its tremendous growth not only in Babylonia, but in Egypt and eventually much of the Mediterranean. There was no quick recovery in the Holy Land this time. Recent evidence points to a devastated urban and rural landscape. I think Jeremiah is speaking to a new reality here that leads to a universalism that we also see in Isa 65:21-23 and perhaps even in books like Esther and Ruth.
These words initiate a fundamentally different interpretation of God’s presence with us. In the ancient Near East, there was generally a belief in many gods. Yet, Jeremiah’s audience could be considered to be monolatrous, i.e. they worshiped only one God. Many in the ancient world believed that different gods had different domains. Accordingly, monolatry worked in the Holy Land where Yahweh was supreme. When Israelites traveled to another land, they went to another god’s domain. A central temple characterized the neighboring lands in which these gods were thought to live. Jerusalem clearly played this role for outsiders. In Babylon, they could see the temples of other gods. Jeremiah turns this logic on its head when he speaks to the exiles in Babylon here. He encourages them to accept their role in a foreign land while maintaining the ethical practices of Israel. The practices articulated here are very similar to the words found in Deuteronomy 20:5-8.
The context of this letter is that Jeremiah sent it after the first group of exiles left in 597. Later groups would leave Israel in 587 and 582. Recent scholarship has argued that this passage’s focus on building homes and planting vineyards echoes the preoccupations of 1.5 generation. The 1.5 generations are generally considered to be those who emigrated as adolescents or slightly older children of immigrants. Jeremiah’s exhortations seem to be very much aimed at the 1.5 generations as they (and not their parents who make up the leadership) would be getting married and building houses.
This reading points us toward examining our congregations a little more closely. How aware are we of an immigrant presence in our churches. How do we reach out to these immigrants? As we enter into yet another debate on immigration in our country, Jeremiah has something to say to us. Rather than using the legalistic language of illegal aliens, Jeremiah invites us to see immigrants in a whole new way. Instead of subjecting people to a cost-benefit analysis, Jeremiah sees the immigrant as gift. Jeremiah sees the immigrant as someone destined to make their new society a better place, someone ordered by God in this oracle to contribute to their new society in a lasting way. If we keep Jeremiah’s perspective in mind, we can only see immigrants as a gift. In these troubled economic times, this is an important message to share with our congregations who are often tempted to lash out at immigrants. This is also a message that immigrants themselves also need to hear who may be worn down by constant negative depictions. These negative depictions are the opposite of how Scripture understands immigrants
Sociologists noted the revitalization of a number of American cities after the last amnesty for immigrants in the 1986. Cities like Santa Ana in California transformed. Jeremiah’s letter offers a formula for transformation. Hope replaces despair as immigrants can get better jobs and put down roots where they live rather than living in constant fear of deportation. Congregations may need to be reminded that v. 7 only makes sense if immigrants find a welcome in our society. People have emigrated since biblical times, and the Bible calls us to compassion and love in response to immigration.
Our gospel this Sunday raises up the ultimate outsider, a Samaritan leper, as hero. No one could be more hated than a Samaritan in Israel, yet Luke demonstrates that only the Samaritan demonstrates gratitude. Earlier in the gospel, only the Samaritan stopped to help the distressed victim. Both in biblical times and in our own time, the Bible points to how much immigrants have to offer.