Byron C. Bangert
First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
April 16, 2000
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14; Luke 19:37-44
Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad refers to our text from Jeremiah as "the first pastoral epistle of the Bible" [BIBLICAL INTERPRETATIONS IN PREACHING, trans. John E. Steely (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977), p. 99]. It reports a letter written by Jeremiah to the Hebrew captives in Babylon. Jeremiah writes from Judah, perhaps from Jerusalem. He writes after the first deportation of Hebrews from Judah to Babylon, which took place around 598 B.C.E. He writes before the second deportation, when the Babylonians will destroy Jerusalem and her temple, around 589 B.C.E. The unthinkable has happened: God's people have been defeated by a heathen power so detested that its very name, Babylon, came to signify a people in open revolt against God. The enemy has torn them from the land of their inheritance and taken them into exile.
The Israelites were not prepared to see this great disruption of their national life as anything permanent. Many of the prophets continue to proclaim that it will soon be over (cf. vss. 8-9). We may imagine that the people were still in something like a state of shock. This really cannot be happening to them! On the one hand they probably suffered a kind of paralysis in relation to their new environment and its immediate tasks. On the other hand they continued to indulge themselves in false dreams that the situation would soon reverse itself. God's honor would be preserved, the yoke of Babylon would be broken, and they would be restored to their homeland. Any thought that God had to do with their present situation was far from their minds.
Jeremiah writes to them in their false hopes and despair. He speaks to their mood of desperation, not with easy words of hollow comfort and empty hope, but with realism born of faith in God. Jeremiah begins with the assertion that God has sent them into exile. Three times in the text it is emphasized that this is God's doing! The present situation must therefore be taken seriously. There has been no temporary lapse of divine governance, to be rectified when God gets hold of things again. To the contrary, Babylon is where God intends the people to be! The people must come to terms with Babylon, because Babylon is where they are going to stay.
Gently but firmly Jeremiah spells out what this means. Since this is to be their habitation, they are to make it their home: "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their 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." Houses can be built rather quickly in the Near East. Gardens take a little longer to yield their produce. But to think of marrying, and to have children, and to think of grandchildren! This is to think in terms of generations living in Babylon. Later in the text Jeremiah says it will be 70 years before the people are brought back to Jerusalem. Seventy years is a round number, not to be taken literally, but representing an historical period or age. Perhaps it signifies a lifetime--threescore and ten. Those now in exile cannot expect to see Jerusalem again. They will live out their days and die in Babylon.
It is hard for us to feel the weight of what Jeremiah is saying. The captive Hebrews have been snatched from a holy land and taken to a land that is not only alien, but profane, unclean. It is a land that does not acknowledge their God as God. It is a land without a temple and the holy places of Israelite faith. It is a land that serves other gods. Babylon is not merely alien, it is hostile. It is an enemy camp. It lives beyond the bounds of all God's righteousness and rule. But Jeremiah says, not so: God has sent you to Babylon. So build, plant, marry, increase. Occupy this land as you would any other in which you were given to dwell.
Still this does not altogether settle the issue of how a people may live in a place of exile. If escape is out of the question, there are alternative ways of relating to an alien environment--withdrawal, subversion or subterfuge, accommodation. But Jeremiah proposes no such alternatives to the Hebrews in their exile. He proposes that God desires a particular way for them to live. He says, "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." To those Hebrews in exile this meant, "Seek the welfare of Babylon, and pray for Babylon, for in Babylon's welfare you will find your welfare!" Seek the welfare of the very place you despise!
The Hebrew word for "welfare" here is "shalom": peace, health, wholeness, salvation. They are to seek the total well-being of Babylon, the place to which they have been sent, the power that has taken them captive and now holds them in exile. And they are to pray for this Babylon. For the well-being of God's people is to be found in the well-being of this alien environment.
If this is God's word to people in exile in Babylon, what must be God's word to us today? The Church, when it has been perceptive, has found in this text a word concerning its own relationship to the world. The particular historical circumstances of the Exile are hardly our own, but the Church has always felt a kind of tension between itself and the world. We speak of the sacred and the secular, the holy and the profane. We envision the Church in, but not of, the world. And the city in particular seems to epitomize what is characteristic of the world. The city is the paradigm of civilization, the symbolic pinnacle of the entire human enterprise. And, as theologian Robert Nelson points out, "the city in the Bible symbolizes human resistance to God" ["The Bible Speaks of Babylon U.S.A. and the New Jerusalem," THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, 95 (May 31, 1978), p. 484].
"Seek the welfare of the city . . . for in its welfare you will find your welfare." The words cannot mean anything less for us today than to involve ourselves in the lives of our human communities and collectivities, in the on-going enterprise of human civilization, in the struggles of people and their social and economic and political institutions to provide the conditions for constructive and meaningful and fulfilling life together. And in our present situation such words should seize us with a particular urgency.
Jeremiah says that God says that in the welfare of the city we will find our welfare. This means that our lives are bound up with the life of the people of the city, and of the world. As von Rad put it, "It has pleased God to connect the well-being of [God's] community with that of the world at large, and since the world supports the community . . . the community should also be ready the serve the world as well" [op. cit., p. 102]. In the welfare of the city, and of the world, we will find our welfare as well.
The perspective that Jeremiah brings is not an uncritical one. His point is not that everything that is undertaken in the name of human welfare, or every project promoted for the sake of improvement of community or city or society or world, is good. His point is that every human community, including the community that identifies itself as the people of God, can only find its "shalom" in the "shalom" of the whole. Wholeness and health and peace require a right relationship of the parts to one another, and to the larger whole. There is no health where only some parts of human community or society, or the body politic, or the world community of peoples and nations, are cared for while others are neglected, where some parts that are strong are allowed to prey upon and exploit some parts that are weak, where some parts languish in poverty and oppression and disease and starvation while others feast in luxury. From the point of view of the great prophets who had been Jeremiah's predecessors, such social and economic and political division had marked the downfall of Israelite society. Exile was God's judgment upon such faithlessness. Jeremiah calls for a profoundly new way of pursuing life together. People are not to come together in order to exploit one another. They are not to come together to insulate themselves from the needs and circumstances of their neighbors. They are not to come together to elevate and confirm in their own eyes and hearts and minds that they are righteous and deserving of divine favor. Rather, they are to live together in order to pursue their larger common good.
Jeremiah says that God considers it the business of the people to seek the welfare of the city. That is not all. He says "and pray to the LORD on its behalf." It is this, I suppose, that most distinguishes the people of God from others in their activity on behalf of the city. That is to say, the people of God see the city as under God's judgment and grace, and they are bound to look at it, therefore, with different eyes. And they are bound to live in it with a different spirit. They are bound to pray for it.
So profound was the experience of the Exile in the history of the people of Israel that became a dominant theme in the witness of the scriptures and, thus, in the life of the Church. Today it speaks not only of the tension that God's people experience between themselves and the world. It also speaks, perhaps even more importantly, of the tension between the people we are and the people we are called to be. It speaks of the experience of the distance between the actual historical circumstances of our life together and the vision of community to which we are summoned in the kin-dom of God. It reminds us of the disparity between the reality of who and what we are and the identity to which we are called as God's people under God's dominion and rule. Our Exile is our experience of having to live together in the world as it is, and as we have made it, knowing that we are far removed from all that God ultimately desires and intends.
Luke reports that as Jesus descended from the Mount of Olives he saw the city--now Jerusalem, but still a city--and he wept over it, saying, "If you . . . had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!" [19:42]. This is the heartache and tragedy of so much of human society: It does not know "the things that make for peace." It does not understand wherein its own welfare lies. It knows buildings and towers. It knows commerce and thievery within the very courts of its temples. It knows political intrigue and bribery. It knows religious treachery and hypocrisy. It knows the instruments of war and the force of the state. Take time to read the Gospel accounts of what we now call "Holy Week" and you will see that is the story they all tell! It is precisely in the place that we have come to call the "Holy City" that such unholy things transpire. It is precisely this "Holy City" that does not know the things that are its "shalom".
We are not to think, however, that the city, or any human community, or the world, lacks those things that make for peace. They are there, for God is there. It is perhaps no accident that Luke, the evangelist who most emphasizes Jesus' tenderness and compassion toward the needy, also emphasizes Jerusalem as the place where he must die and where the good news concerning his resurrection must first be proclaimed. The city is the place of God's most profound suffering and most transforming power. Only the city does not know! It does not recognize the things that are its salvation. They are hid from its eyes. And so the city--and the world--with blindness, callousness, cruelty, and extreme prejudice, seeks to resist and to destroy the very sources of its transformation.
Because of the blindness of the city and the world, it is the task of the people of God not only to work for the welfare of the city, but to seek and to proclaim those things that make for its peace. It is the task of the people of God to bear witness, from Babylon to Baghdad, from Beijing to Berlin to Bloomington, that God is in the world. But in so doing, the people of God must be prepared for the world not to understand. A crowd welcomed Jesus, shouting his praises as he drew near the city. But some religious leaders tell Jesus, "Order your disciples to stop"--as if Jesus' disciples were the ones disturbing the peace! Another crowd will soon be shouting Jesus' crucifixion. The city did not understand--or it understood, but would not have it that way.
When Jesus saw the city, he wept over it, saying, "If you . . . had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes." In the city there is concentrated all the evil that is in the world. The city symbolizes human society, civilization, the world of human creation, and resistance to God. But God is in the city. And we are in the city. Seek its welfare. Pray for it. Tell it of the things that make for peace. We are the city. Its welfare and our welfare are one. AMEN.
Copyright 2000 by Byron C. Bangert