Sunday, October 10
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
O God, Spirit of righteousness, you temper judgment with mercy. Help us to live the covenant written upon our hearts so that when Christ returns we may be found worthy to be received by grace into your presence. Amen.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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.
All Readings For This Sunday
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 with Psalm 66:1-12 or
2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c with Psalm 111 and
2 Timothy 2:8-15 and
1. Why do you think the people listened to the prophets who predicted a speedy end to their suffering?
2. Have you ever experienced "dis-location"? Can you relate to how the exiles felt?
3. How does a person of faith know when to resist an oppressor, and when to settle in for the long haul?
4. What do you think might be accomplished by seeking the welfare of "a city" in which we feel captive?
5. Where do you seek "good news"?
by Kate Huey
They say that we're experiencing something called "economic dislocation," a good term to describe the way so many of us feel "dis-placed"--whether we're no longer in our homes, or in our jobs, or perhaps no longer in a place of confidence about the future. Every night the news tells us about one or another discouraging "leading indicator," and then piles on us warnings about terrorist plots, updates on the deaths and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reports about corruption in one level of government or another, the degradation of the environment, and the worrisome state of our educational system (all before the first commercial break). What's happening to our world? What's happening to our families, our communities, our churches, the fabric of our society? And who's responsible for the mess we're in? What can we count on now? Can anyone blame us for hungering for a little bit of good news?
The Jewish people, too, six hundred years before our current era (B.C.E.) must have struggled with many questions. Our studies of Old Testament texts often focus on the terrible experience of their Exile in Babylon, and this week's passage from the prophet Jeremiah is no exception; in fact, we take an even closer look at one point in the history of that crisis when we read from a letter Jeremiah wrote to the first wave of exiles who were taken into captivity, along with their king, the first time the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar struck out at the little kingdom of Judah and its great city, Jerusalem, in 597 B.C.E. This first group, Jeremiah tells us, included not only the king but the leaders of society--including priests and prophets (Ezekiel, but not Jeremiah)--and "the artisans and the smiths," or, as Eugene Peterson translates it, "all the skilled laborers and craftsmen" (The Message). In other words, they took everyone who could be of use to the Empire. Christine Pilkington tells us that ten years later, in 587, Babylon will return to devastate Jerusalem and carry off even more of the population, and then a third group will be taken in 581.
When a calamity happens, there are always those with opinions about who's at fault--like televangelists blaming the terror attacks of September 11 on feminists and gay people. In that in-between time, the ten years between the first deportation and the utter destruction of Jerusalem, there was a lot of speculation about who was responsible for bringing upon the people of God such a disaster. Some people, back in Jerusalem, found comfort in the thought that they had escaped the judgment of God Jeremiah had been warning them about, because God was punishing those who were carried off but not those who were left behind.
While there have been countless conquests, wars, and terrifying destruction brought upon many different nations and peoples in history, there's something special about this particular disaster. James Newsome calls it an "important historical phenomenon" for all "humankind"--not just the Jewish people themselves--that they survived the Babylonian exile. He reminds us that the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been carried off by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., leaving behind only a remnant, the people we have come to know as the Samaritans, but otherwise disappearing from history. Why, in contrast, did the people of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, survive their time of exile in Babylon, and eventually return to their homeland? Of course, we can say it was the hand and will of God, but, Newsome writes, we must also credit the work of the prophet Jeremiah and his powerful words of inspiration and hope. (Note that we are in chapter 29 and will soon begin the Book of Comfort in the following chapters.) Newsome says that Jeremiah provided "the words by which the people could come to terms with the tragedy of their nation and…rise above it."
While words like "tragedy" and "calamity" and "disaster" are not inappropriate to describe the ordeal of the people of Judah, at this point, when Jeremiah is writing during that little window of time between the first and second wave of deportations, he's addressing a group that is not exactly suffering in the way we might imagine. We know, for example, that their conditions in Babylon were not so bad: Gene Tucker tells us that, instead of being sold off into slavery, they were allowed to keep their families, their communities, their public gatherings and their worship services. In other words, they could still be who they were, still experience themselves as a community, although they had to be creative and flexible without their temple, so "portable religious activities," Tucker writes, and "public and private prayer became more important." No doubt, in those gatherings and in those prayers, there were questions nevertheless about why they had been carried off. And there were plenty of folks were who willing to provide answers.
False v. true prophecy
Many scholars say that this text is at least partly about the conflict between true and false prophecy. As always, the lectionary gives us just a little snapshot of the larger picture, and all we get this week is a beautiful, if brief, instruction from the prophet about how the people should respond to their plight. What we don't know from this short passage, however, is that other prophets are also providing their opinions, and Jeremiah has no use for them, as we learn if we continue reading past this week's last verse, when he calls them deceivers and liars. What Hananiah (in the previous chapter) and other prophets are saying is that Babylon is about to collapse and that the whole nightmare will be over in as little as two years. Again, who can blame folks for hungering for a piece of good news? If we're only here for two years, we can bear that, and we hardly have to unpack. Let's just count the days and prepare for quick deliverance. Jeremiah, the prophet of God, however, throws cold water on that kind of false optimism. He calls the people to a deeper kind of hope, a deeper faith, and takes the much longer view of things. This isn't going to be over in two years, he says, but will take seventy years (see verse 10). Christine Pilkington writes about these false prophets "whose religion is root-bound in Jerusalem and its temple. Fanatics are always in a hurry." Whether the term "seventy years" is literal or just a way of saying "a long haul," she writes, Jeremiah is telling the people that "God is to be found in all this upheaval, and he is still the same God seeking all that is best, shalom, for his people."
Seventy years instead of two may sound like bad news, Jeremiah says, but the good news is that God knows what God is doing, and God keeps promises, and God has promised us a future, and a hope. In fact, one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible follows this passage and reverberates back to it, and probably should have been included by the lectionary, in my humble opinion: "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope" (29:11).
A future, with hope
With such a future, and such a hope, in their hearts and minds, the people, then, are instructed by Jeremiah to live in a kind of extended "in-between" time, not just sitting around and waiting for something to happen, not rising up and trying to escape or overthrow their captors, and not letting themselves be dragged down into depression and complaining. No, Jeremiah instead speaks poetically about building houses, and planting gardens, and starting families that go on and on, even in a strange and inhospitable land, surrounded by pagans but flourishing nevertheless. Audrey West says that "the people of God can bloom where they are planted," and she echoes something we're hearing a lot these days, after almost ten years of living under the threat of terrorism, and several years of economic "adjustments": Jeremiah, she says, instructs the people, and us, to "create a new 'normal' as they learn to live into this reality, making it their home." Things may not be great right now, but, she writes, "the news doesn't have to be good in order for us to live out the good news and…to be blessed ourselves and be a blessing to those around us." These words fit the situation of a people living under the thumb of an ancient empire just as they fit our situation today, mired in different kinds of empires, including fear, and materialism, and militarism, and consumerism, to mention only a few.
If faith is, at its heart, trust in God, then Jeremiah is telling the people to have faith in God and in the promises of God. Of course, things may look bad now, which Jeremiah interprets as God's judgment on the people: Christine Pilkington says that "Jeremiah counsels subservience to Babylon on the ground that it is working out God's purpose of punishment and renewal"--that is, Jeremiah sees Babylon as the instrument of God (just as Cyrus of Persia will later be seen as God's instrument in releasing the people from captivity when he conquers the Babylonians). What Jeremiah is doing is interpreting current events theologically, and, Pilkington, writes, reassuring the people "that God, in spite of appearances, is still in control." This must have been a source of great comfort to them, as they hungered for an understanding of their situation that would go "beyond a sort of whistling in the dark." But Jeremiah goes even further: he tells them to "seek the welfare" of Babylon, and to pray for it as well. Now he may have gone too far, telling the people of God to tie their own good to that of a pagan empire! Pilkington says that "against the white heat of bitter disappointment and ethnic animosity which marks any deportation, it is surely remarkable."
"Remarkable" sounds a bit understated, in fact. Jeremiah's instruction is familiar-sounding, though, to followers of Jesus who have also been instructed to pray for our enemies. We like to think that Jesus' teaching was revolutionary, but here we see just how deep the roots of our tradition are, for Jesus is in a prophetic line that stretches back to Jeremiah, and he shares that expansive vision in which, John Bracke writes, "God's imagination is not bound by the dividing walls of hostility constructed by human conflicts." If Jeremiah tells the people of God to pray for the Babylonians, their pagan conquerors, and Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, then our Judeo-Christian tradition, Bracke writes, "presses us to ask, in God's global vision, whose welfare God calls us to seek and with whom God is inviting us to live in peace." If this instruction of Jeremiah does not at least jar us, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention to the words of Jesus either. After all, like the ancient Jewish people, we're being told to change our attitude, to live in a whole new way. Patrick Miller says it's "not just good sense. It is a different mode of existence from the permanent hatred of the enemy that is our instinct and even sometimes the word we hear from the Bible (e.g., Exod. 17:16). Jesus suggested that praying for those who persecute us is a part of the way the kingdom of God is established on earth. For Israel, such praying began in Babylon."
"God Bless Everyone!"
Perhaps that's no accident, because the experience of being carried off to a foreign land, with people who speak another language and have a different worldview, whose religion and gods are strange and whose aspirations are not shared by the Jewish people themselves, was a huge learning experience. Not having the temple or their established synagogues for worship and learning meant that, in a way, they had to start over again, but only after adjusting their assumptions. Praying for Babylon, W. Hulitt Gloer writes, necessitated a "shift from understanding Israel's God as a localized, territorial deity to understanding YHWH as a universal God who rules over all the earth and all the people of the earth," and this God, today as well as in ancient times, is "with you just as much in Babylon as in Jerusalem, in Baghdad as in Boston." Gloer brings this home for us after a decade of patriotic fervor undergirded by religion: we, too, need to recognize, he writes, that "we serve a universal God who is not limited to one nation and people calls us beyond 'God Bless America' to 'God Bless Everyone!'" But, then, this should only make sense to a people who preach a gospel that is "good news of great joy" not just for some people but "for all the people" (Luke 2:10-11).
There are several other themes within the text, including Terence Fretheim's observation that God cares not only about the spiritual welfare of the people but their physical and material welfare, too. They are to work and eat the fruit of their work, to marry and have children and grandchildren, to survive and flourish even in a strange land. At the same time, they have to let go of what is gone, what is in the past that will not be part of their lives anymore. The ones who were carried off into exile will not live to see its end, so they need not only to learn a "new normal" but also to be open to a new future for themselves, to accept that what is in the past is gone, and something new is being born. Bruce Boak writes about the way our communities--including our congregations--long for the way things used to be: Jeremiah, he writes is "telling those who moped that God says, 'Your old life is dead. Your new life is to be found in Babylon. Deal with it. Settle down. Adjust!'" No, more than that, we should flourish, no matter where we are or how alienated we may feel by what is happening around us, for God is there, in the most unexpected places, sustaining us in grace and tender love.
A preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel
For further reflection
Ralph Waldo Emerson
All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.
Richard Rohr, 20th century
If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it.
John of the Cross, 16th century
Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be a better light, and safer than a known way.
The Nashville Banner
Sometimes the best way to convince someone he is wrong is to let him have his way.
Catherine Aird, 20th century
If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.
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