Surprising Investment (Sept. 20 - 26)
September 17, 2010
Sunday, September 26
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
God Eternal, you inspired Jeremiah to buy a piece of land when no one could see a future in it. Grant us such commitment to the future of your people, that you will always have workers for your vineyard and harvesters for your fields. Amen.
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours." Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself." Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
All Readings For This Sunday
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 with Psalm 91:1-6,14-16 or
Amos 6:1a, 4-7 with Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19 and
1. Is this text a message for individuals, or does it address the wider community? Why?
2. When have you felt "the armies of the empire" camped outside your "city walls"?
3. What ought to be the response of individuals and churches to a prophetic text?
4. When have you seen hope in the midst of despair?
5. When has God "vetoed" your anxiety?
by Kate Huey
If they had had such things back in those days, the people of Israel might have said that their hopes were on a roller-coaster ride, up and down, up and down. When things were good, no one wanted to hear from the prophet Jeremiah, who warned even in "secure" times that God's judgment was coming in the form of the armies of the Babylonian empire. For thirty chapters, Jeremiah does go on. And on. No wonder the people preferred to listen to the prophets who were cheery and reassuring, denying the threat of destruction from the East, denial, it seems, thriving in every age. Meanwhile, the king seemed to have his head in the clouds, counting on help to come from the south, from the mighty Egypt, who hated Babylon as much as anyone. Little Israel was caught between, and at the mercy of, the grand empires who decided world affairs in those days, including the things that eventually rained down on the "little ones," ordinary people who starved, suffered, and died in the midst of the dramas of "greater" men. Perhaps some things never change.
But that's not really what our passage this week is about. Jeremiah has changed his tune, and his prophecies in these chapters are commonly called "The Book of Comfort." It's 588 B.C. E., and Babylon is pounding on the door of Jerusalem--again. Ten years earlier, they had disciplined a rebellious Israel with a measure of destruction and had carried off some of its people. But now Israel was getting overly confident again, probably because they thought they had Egypt backing them up (sometimes it works to get one bully to fight the other), and the Babylonians were going to make it very clear that there would be no more trouble from this upstart kingdom. The destruction and exile that followed left a profound mark on the spirit and history of the people of Israel, when the land that had been promised to their ancestors long ago, the land to which their freed-slave forebears had been led through forty long years (and much longer in captivity), the land of David and Solomon's glory, the land that was theirs: this land was in every sense taken from them. Jeremiah had tried to warn them that they needed to get right with God, and he saw Babylon as the instrument of God's punishment for Israel's unfaithfulness.
With the armies of the evil empire camped around them (like a scene from one of the Lord of the Rings movies), the people are starving, and sick, and desperate. They're trapped, so they can't get out of the city walls to tend their land. Their king, Zedekiah, knows he's in trouble, but he's perhaps the best of all at denial. He even responded to Jeremiah's warnings that he, the king, would be, as Eugene Peterson translates it, "forced to face the music" (The Message), by holding the prophet captive in his palace, where he couldn't stir up the people.
While Jeremiah has used many words in the past thirty chapters or so, here he uses a deed (literally) to deliver a message. In his action as much as his speech, he still digs deep and finds hope to sustain the people. Even though he has predicted this calamity, his spirit must be depressed by the reality of it on his doorstep. Right at that moment he receives a perplexing, surprising, and, we might say, "counter-intuitive" message from God. When he hears that his relative, Hanamel, is going to come to him with the offer to sell him his land in Anathoth, and then Hanamel appears and does exactly that, Jeremiah knows that this "message from God" is valid. And so he obeys the command he has received, and purchases what is, at least at this moment, worthless land.
Now we have different ways today of determining the value of property, including land. While we still have farms and depend on the earth for our sustenance, most of us are disconnected from the processes of agriculture, and land may only represent an investment that will grow because of its strategic location (for example, if a housing development might be put on it, or a big box store goes up next to it, and its commercial value soars). Except for long-time owners of land who live on it and its yield, most folks have very little attachment to such real estate. But that's not how things were in Jeremiah's day. The people still remembered that the land was not only a gift from God, but in a very real way, still belonged to God. This is the foundation of a stewardship theology that says that all creation, while a blessing from God, still belongs to God, including all of our possessions and money. In any case, the land was precious to the people, and it was kept "in the family," from generation to generation. In Leviticus 25:25-55, the law even provided protection for this practice, and we hear about this "law of redemption" in action in our reading this week. It was Jeremiah's right and duty to re-claim the land in Anathoth for a relative who was destitute. Talk about location, location, location: what good was that land going to be to Jeremiah, when the Babylonians were camped on it? It certainly couldn't be farmed, or provide sustenance or income for its owner. If he tried to sell it, he'd have to find another family member as "foolish" as he was, willing to pay money for what appeared to be worthless.
Imagine the mess Israel was in! Elizabeth Achtemeier vividly describes the major economic depression visited upon Israel by the Babylonians: "Material property of course was of no value. Silver and gold were worthless, because there was nothing to buy. All commercial enterprises collapsed." This of course affected the real estate market, she writes, as [p]roperty values plummeted," and "everyone was trying to sell property and to flee the city. Who wanted any land when the Babylonians were knocking at the gates?" Stephen Breck Reid evokes a sense of our own economic downturn when he says that Jeremiah's "purchase came in what we might call a depressed real-estate market. Recently there had been a drop in the stock market, and on the television commentators wondered if this would be the end of the bull market and everyone would move to selling instead of buying."
It's in this atmosphere of doom that Jeremiah doesn't just speak but acts, and with great care, even great though quiet drama. He buys his relative's land, and makes something of a show of the transaction, just to make a statement, we would say today. When it appears that there is no hope for tomorrow, Jeremiah makes a hope-filled, trust-filled statement about God's intentions for Israel and its story, which will, against all appearances, go on. It's not just optimism or even a misplaced confidence in governments, his own king, or Egypt's armies, to pull things out of the fire at the last moment. As Gary E. Peluso-Verdend writes, Jeremiah's hope, "just like his prophetic voice, is grounded not in the administration and its might but in the God who is Lord of all administrations, the God who is also Lord over all the lands of all the nations."
Seeing the bigger picture of God's promises
When the word of God came to Jeremiah and told him to buy the land, it also helped him to dare to see that there would be more than this impending desolation, more than the realization of his worst warnings, and that there would be life again, with God's people back on their own land, and the most ordinary of human transactions, including those of real estate, resuming once again. That's why Jeremiah ordered his secretary, Baruch, whom we meet for the first time here, to copy and preserve these documents of sale not only for verification but for future generations who will read them and be inspired to hope in their own day. Even though Jeremiah himself wouldn't live to see this happen, he wanted to make sure that his descendants would see in the good times the hand of God fulfilling ancient promises, and would, in the bad times, hold fast to those same promises of abiding, faithful love and compassion by a generous but demanding God. As Peluso-Verdend puts it, the hope will live on, even if Jeremiah didn't. And this message, and witness, are for us today, as well, Lisa Davison writes: "Looking forward instead of backward is a testament to our faith and trust in God's ultimate control and desire for a world filled with peace and justice."
It must be noted here that even Jeremiah himself struggled with all of this, and that may be, in a way, encouraging to us today. In the passage that follows the lectionary text, Jeremiah has one of those weary-sounding and anxious prayer-times with God. He reviews a long list of God's good deeds toward Israel, God's mighty deeds and faithfulness, in spite of the people's sins, "but"--there's that important word--but, for heaven's sake, aren't you paying attention, he asks God, to what's happening out there, on the wall, where "the siege ramps have been cast up" to take Jerusalem, and destroy it, and to end at last the story of the people of God? Are you sure you really want me to be buying land at this point? And of course, God begins a long message of judgment against the people with that wonderful question, "I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?" Many verses into the speech, God says, "Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good fortune that I now promise them. Fields shall be bought in this land….for money, and deeds shall be signed and sealed and witnessed…for I will restore their fortunes, says the Lord" (32:42-44). As James Newsome puts it, we are reassured that "judgment is not the final word. Beyond judgment, beyond destruction, beyond the justice of God there is restoration, mercy, salvation!"
Perhaps we struggle with the idea that God would allow, or even will, the destruction, of Jerusalem and its people. It's only a short step, after all, from there to saying that any group or nation that suffers somehow deserves it. Newsome focuses on the main point underneath everything: "The one thing that will prevail is God's compassion. Jeremiah has conducted a little drama in which he has played the role of God, performing the same task in a small way that Israel's God would perform on a larger stage."
Are we Jeremiah, or Baruch?
We could also focus our attention on Baruch, for we might not be called to be "foolish" people of faith as much as the ones who watch them, and learn from them, and help them in their work. Michael E. Williams imagines what Baruch may have been thinking as he performed this "no ordinary task since we were living in no ordinary time." Maybe Jeremiah was crazy, but Baruch claims that "[w]ithout those God-crazed Jeremiahs among us we would fall more often….Perhaps in times like these our only hope is found in such outrageous faith….Others of us can only stand aside and marvel at such faith or foolishness. And we can record for future generations the lives and words of God's outrageous faithful. We are the Baruchs."
In fact, Walter Brueggemann observes that "the safe place in which Baruch deposited the evidence, even after the 'earthenware vessel' (32:14), is the biblical text itself," because we don't have the deed but we have the evidence that is "sufficient for Israel's long-term hope," and our hope as well. Brueggemann also points out the way this story illustrates the "way in which the Bible holds together faith claims and the realities of public life. Unless both factors are present, the significance of this episode collapses," for "God intends a good life for this people after exile." So the Bible isn't just for our private consolation, but a call to hope, and work, for the good of the whole community.
Life will never be the same, but it will go on
Nine years ago, when we were still reeling from the effects of the 9/11 attacks, many of us thought that life would never be the same. Of course, it isn't the same, but life has persisted, sprung up, and flourished in many ways, even as we grieve our loss and struggle to rebuild on the dust of the destruction. When we in the church today root our identity in texts like this one, we have to discern how God is calling us to live on in a new day, no matter what empires--materialism, hatred and prejudice, militarism, sexism, racism or more--may threaten us. Stephen Breck Reid suggests that we read texts like this one from the prophets and then "find analogies of collaborative, inspired, public, prophetic actions that speak the hope of redemption in unpromising places and times," no matter how bad things appear at this moment. No matter what happens, Brueggemann writes, "The world does not culminate on Babylonian terms, because God has post-Babylonian intentions for Judah"; for them, and for us, "Life begins again, out of chaos!"
In his book of beautiful prayers, "Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth," Walter Brueggemann evokes the sense of threat and anxiety in this story from long ago, as he prays about our situation today: "The threats do not wane, The dangers are not imagined, The power to undo is on the loose…." God's word, however, "cuts the threat…siphons off the danger…tames the powers," and tells us, "do not fear." And so, "[w]e do not fear, because you are with us, with us, and so safe, with us, and so free, with us, and so joyous. We diminish our lives in our feeble anxiety…and you veto our anxiety…." Come by us here, he prays, and "give us faith commensurate with your true, abiding self. Amen." Amen!
A preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel
For further reflection
Francis Bacon, 16th century
A sudden bold and unexpected question doth many times surprise a man and lay him open.
I wasn't born a fool. It took work to get this way.
Oscar Wilde, 19th century
A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
People only see what they are prepared to see.
Henri Matisse, 20th century
There are always flowers for those who want to see them.
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