19th Sunday After Pentecost
September 29, 2013
Commentary on the Texts
This reading occurs within a section of the Jeremiah collection known as the Little Book of Consolation (chs. 31-33). This series of closely related passages moves from the largely negative tone of the first part of the book to an adamant hope for the future beyond the ending of exile (see Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14, especially the section The Setting for discussion of this collection; for commentaries on other readings from this section of the book, see the commentaries on 31:27-34, 33:14-16).
While there is debate about the exact chronological sequence of this portion of Jeremiah (ch. 33. probably follows ch. 37 chronologically), the general historical context is clear. The nation of Judah was breathing its last. The Babylonians had returned to punish King Zedekiah for his ill-advised rebellion and had laid siege to the city of Jerusalem (32:2). Perhaps within weeks or even days that siege would result not only in the total destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, but the entire nation itself (for more detail on the historical background, see Commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-16, especially the section on The Historical Setting).
Yet the people were still holding out false hope for the future. The Egyptian Pharaoh Hophra had temporarily diverted the Babylonians' attention from Jerusalem in a political attempt to prevent Babylon from establishing Israel as a buffer state between them. That attempt would fail, but many of the people, and even some of the prophets, saw the Egyptian interference as God's deliverance of the city. But Jeremiah never wavered in his message. Even King Zedekiah knew exactly what Jeremiah had been saying (32:1-5). Yet, after 40 years, Jeremiah's warnings still went unheeded.
And yet, in the middle of the siege of Jerusalem and the impending destruction that Jeremiah had been talking about for 40 years, he seemingly shifted the focus of his message rather abruptly. While there is debate about how much Jeremiah himself had held out any hope beyond the destruction in his early career, the traditions did remember that Jeremiah's "calling" as a prophet involved a significant element of hope (1:10). There are some references to a future restoration scattered throughout the collections of Jeremiah's early material (e.g., 3:15-18, 5:18, 16:14-15). While some scholars discount those as later post-exilic additions and not really from Jeremiah, there is no reason to believe that Jeremiah himself did not have some sense of a future beyond the destruction as part of his understanding of God's work in the world.
Still, that had not really been his message to this point. The people had not even believed there would be any ending, so they had no need to hear of anything beyond ending. If they would not believe Jeremiah's message of impending destruction, the promise of newness beyond that destruction would make little sense. So Jeremiah had resolutely focused on the warnings and what he saw as the nearly inevitable end of the nation and the people. It is that unwavering message throughout most of the book of Jeremiah to this point that makes this material so striking and provides a theological insight into Jeremiah's message that goes beyond the historical or psychological categories that we so often use here.
This chapter actually contains three related units (beyond the opening reference to Zediakiah that connects with ch. 37), and it is helpful to see this reading as part of that larger movement. The narrative of Jeremiah's purchase of land (vv. 5-15) leads into an affirmation of hope for the future of Judah cast in the form of a prayer from Jeremiah (vv. 16-25). The language and theological perspective of these verses is similar to Deuteronomy in grounding hope for the future in the past actions of God. This has led some to conclude that this is deuteronomic material from the post-exilic era, and it may well be. Or it may be a narrative written later by Baruch, Jeremiah's scribe (he is mentioned here for the first time, v. 12). However, we do not have to solve these questions in order to understand the theological point being made. The flow of thought here is consistent with the hope emphasis to which this section of the book has turned, and these verses carry through the theme of newness out of ending that characterizes hope passages throughout the Jeremiah material.
The third section (vv. 26-44) is God's response to the prayer, not only reaffirming the same perspective of hope beyond disaster, but also serving to vindicate the entire message of the prophet as well. The final verses return to the theme of buying fields with which this section opened (v. 44). These later two sections serve to provide theological reflection on Jeremiah's action and message in the context of the wider work of God in Israel's history.
The narrative of Jeremiah's purchase of the field at Anathoth that provides the setting for this whole sequence is the most detailed business transaction preserved in Scripture (cf. Ruth 4:1-12). Archaeological evidence from other areas of the Ancient Middle East confirm the legal customs and even some of the details reflected in this account. However, the details serve a larger purpose than simply to record customs, as we shall observe a little later.
The particular incident arose out of ancient tribal conventions and Mosaic laws that were founded on Israel's understanding of her existence as God's people in God's land. Mosaic legislation provided that the nearest relative would have the first chance of buying land that had to be sold in order to keep ownership of land within a family or tribe (Lev. 25:25-28). This provision grew from the theological conviction that God had given this land to Israel as part of the promise to Abraham and the covenant that God made with Moses and the people at Sinai after the Exodus.
The land was not a reward for obedience, but a sign of God's grace and provision for his people, as well as reflecting an understanding of God as the Creator and Sustainer of the world. For too long the Hebrews had experienced slavery in Egypt and then an extended period of homelessness in the wilderness following the Exodus. So, the land became a powerful symbol of God's grace, the stability and peace that God brings into the world amid the chaos of homelessness and an uncertain future. It is this dimension that works out theologically in many levels of biblical traditions in which gaining possession, keeping, or regaining possession of the land are important aspects. In fact, this is the theological base from which the concept of heaven emerges.
Therefore, land could not be bought and sold purely for profit, since it was seen as the means through which God sustained the people and provided them some stability in the world. Theoretically, it could only be passed through families as an inheritance. Many of the prophets saw the accumulation of land in violation of the inheritance laws as part of the injustice that flourished when God was not honored (e.g., 1 Kings 21; cf. Isa. 5:8, Micah 2:2). So even when circumstances forced the sale of land, the provisions restricted its sale to family or tribal members.
These obligations associated with the land because of its allotment within families and tribes under God were taken so seriously that they even extended to marriage relationships. When Ruth's husband died while she was still young, a near kinsman was expected to take her as a wife so that children from the marriage would keep the land within the family. In fact, for purposes of inheritance the children were considered to be the legal descendants of the dead husband (cf. Ruth 2:20, 4:1-15; note a similar dilemma created when Zelophehad died with only daughters, which put his family inheritance at risk since land was normally inherited through male descendants; the court decision allowed inheritance to pass to daughters with the provision that they only marry within their own tribe, Num 27:1-11, 36:1-9).
We are not told exactly why Jeremiah's cousin, Hanamel, was trying to sell his land, nor are we told if he had made the offer to other less distant relatives than a cousin. So we must be careful about speculation. But the immediate context in which this narrative is set draws a bleak picture (vv. 1-5, ch 37). The city was under siege, and by this time it had likely started to dawn on some that there was little future for Jerusalem. The Babylonian armies had already decimated the countryside, no doubt ravaging the fields and orchards to supply the army. So, it seems reasonable to conclude from the narrative context that Hanamel, like many others, was preparing to flee the Babylonian onslaught, and so was raising money for relocation (cf. chs. 42-43). In a short time his land would be virtually worthless, if, indeed, he himself remained alive. If this is so, it is a stark admission that the land, once valued as God's land, was being abandoned.
In any case, God told Jeremiah about the impending visit from this cousin as a way to confirm that God's message could be communicated through this transaction (v. 8b). This moves this event from being just an interesting bit of trivia, or Jeremiah simply fulfilling family obligations, to another in the series of prophetic symbolic actions by which Jeremiah communicated the will and purposes of God to the people.
The transaction was carried out in meticulous detail, including two copies of the deed and appropriate witnesses, and the responsibility was given to Baruch to preserve the records. Archaeologists have discovered similar ancient documents still sealed in earthen jars after two millennia, complete with an outer "open" copy of the document for easy reading, and a second archive copy sealed with a lump of wax or clay usually stamped with an engraved signet ring that served as both a signature and a seal. The Dead Sea Scrolls, perhaps the most famous ancient documents preserved in clay jars for over two thousand years, bear witness to the effectiveness of this method or record keeping. But finally, the most important repository for this transaction was the biblical text itself, especially if many scholars are correct in seeing Baruch himself as the author of this particular section of Jeremiah. In any case, Jeremiah's action was preserved as a message to the people.
The transaction was conducted in a public place, normally the large area in and around the city gate that functioned as the "court" for trials and other public business (for example, Duet 22:15). The fact that Jeremiah conducted this business in such a public way provided a graphic message to the people. The comments from Zedekiah (vv. 1-5), Jeremiah's previous conflicts with Jehoikim and religious officials, his public statements across the years (for example, 7:1-8:3), even his own complaints about being hated and despised by the people (for example, 20:7-10), made clear that Jeremiah's opinion about the fate of the nation was a matter of public knowledge. He was well known for his negative message. And yet here he stood before the court of the city, likely with all of the elders of Jerusalem sitting around, making a physical investment in the future of the city. It was not that he had changed his message, only that the message contained more than "terror" and judgment of God, and it is that broader message that now took center stage.
The preservation of these details of the transaction within the tradition served to establish clear legal right to this land. It would not be so much a matter of whether Jeremiah would live to take possession of his newly acquired property. But it would be important when the exiles returned nearly two generations later and laid claim to land that had been taken over by others. Finally, however, this is not just about legal claim to land. It is a theological message about how God works in human affairs. This single piece of land symbolized all of the land, which in turn exemplified in a concrete way the promises of God and his faithfulness to the Fathers, to the ragged bunch of escaped slaves, and to the wilderness wanderers. It was a way to affirm the continuity of the past with the future in spite of the horrible endings that lay ahead. In so doing it was a way to place trust in God as the kind of God who had heard the cries of oppressed slaves in Egypt (which is the function of the prayer in vv. 16-25). Even understanding these events as the judgment of God for the people's failure, Jeremiah understood that there was no other basis for hope but in God. They would not survive this because of any human resources. They had already tried that, and as was already becoming clear, it had failed. If they were to have a future, it would be God's future.
Finally in verse 15, Jeremiah plainly explained his actions to the people. The repeated reference to the "word of the Lord" (vv. 6, 8 twice) and the formula "thus says the Lord" (vv. 14, 15) serve to emphasize that this was not just Jeremiah's hopes for the future, as had been the case with Hananiah (ch. 28), but that this was indeed God's purposes for the future. Yet, Jeremiah's message was no cosmic message of abstract hope, of only inward spiritual experience, or of metaphysical reality "out there" unrelated to everyday life. Jeremiah was so convinced that God would work among his people beyond the ending of exile in concrete ways that he was willing to make an actual monetary investment in that future in terms of a piece of real estate.
The message revealed in the purchase of a field in Anathoth was that God would act in the arena of human history to accomplish his purposes for his people. Biblical faith never divorces the actions of God from the everyday realities of life. Here, God is not the transcendent God of abstract philosophy and spiritual experience, nor is he the God of grand promises of a restored Empire. Here he is simply the God who speaks hope for the future in terms of the normalcy of everyday living, even in terms of the economic necessities of life. Biblical faith is certainly not grounded in human possibilities or limited to physical existence, but it is always lived out in this-worldly reality. And this passage affirms that those necessary things that are of concern to us are also the things that concern God because they are necessities for us.
Jeremiah's actions must have been astonishing to the people. Here the same person who had preached so incessantly for so long about death and suffering and destruction, was now talking about houses and fields and growing vineyards, about building and planting (cf. 1:10), about life one day returning to normal. At the very time that the people might just be starting to believe his message of doom and destruction amid the single most devastating series of events in Israel's 800 year history in the land, Jeremiah was talking about getting on with the mundane activity of life at some time in the future.
Jeremiah seemed always to take the unrealistic position and seemed always to be at odds with popular opinion. When times were good, he warned of famine and starvation. When other prophets spoke of peace, he spoke of war. When others took refuge in religion, he talked of hypocrisy and false gods. When the people were joyful, he wept. When the king wanted a word of hope, he preached death and destruction. When the people began to slip into despair, he talked of hope and the future. When everything was about to go up in flames, he bought a piece of land and invested in the future!
What is most disturbing is not just that Jeremiah was always in the minority, sometimes all alone, in his views. It is more disturbing that history proved him right. Perhaps this tells us something about the difference between seeing things from a human view and seeing things from the perspective of spiritual reality. This is the importance of the link here between the actions of God and the realities of life. These realities of life, houses for shelter, fields and vineyards for sustenance, are important aspects of human existence and cannot be discounted for some spiritual plane of existence.
And yet, God's people cannot view the world and relationship with God in terms of those things. Normal human ways of thinking tend to be wrong, because they are preoccupied with things like security and well being, with joy and happiness, with prosperity and achievement as the primary elements of human existence simply because they are necessities. However, such an elevation of those things to primacy forgets that those things are the result of a life lived well, not the cause. As Jesus would say much later, "strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt 6:33). This becomes a commentary about the unreliability of our normal human perspectives and the need to have spiritual vision, the need to see God's reality beyond human appearances, to see God's purposes beyond human goals.
This does not suggest that God's people must always be totally at odds with everyone around them. But it does suggest that God's people will most likely have a perspective on human existence that uses a different set of criteria for life. As Abraham Heschel said about prophets, they "sing one octave too high." That is, they operate on a different level because they stand in God's place. Perhaps this is what Paul meant about when he spoke about the irony of the wise being foolish and the foolish being wise. Or Jesus when he talked seeming nonsense about the last being first and the first being last. Jeremiah exemplified as well as anyone else in Scripture the subversive and counter-cultural dimension of being God's people.
Finally, though, Jeremiah's message was not about revolution, as revolutionary as most of what he said would have sounded to the people. His message was always, whether judgment or hope, about God, and about what God is about in the world. When the people were arrogant and self-sufficient, he spoke judgment. And now, when the people were beginning to slip into despair for the future, he spoke hope and a future. Perhaps it is that very aspect of being able to read our circumstances and history in terms of God and his perspective rather than in terms of those circumstances and from our perspective that makes this message of Jeremiah's so important.
Several tensions within the historical and literary setting of this reading combine to provide the context for application today. The people of Israel were apostate and sinful, while claiming that nothing was wrong. And yet they faced a situation in life that they knew was beyond their ability to control. They thought God would save them from disaster, yet were not willing to be God's people. They were trying to secure their own safety and return some normalcy to life, while in so doing were creating a situation that was anything but normal. And yet out of the chaos that they had created, God has raised the possibility of normalcy that they could not themselves create. Jeremiah proclaimed to them accountability for their actions in unthinkable consequences. And yet as the consequences were beginning to unfold, we hear of a possible future beyond the consequences.
Most of us do not face anything remotely analogous to the Israelites' situation in 587 BC, and we should not easily claim that we do. And yet the tensions and incongruities in their situation are all too familiar to many in our modern world. We have many examples, both in public and private life, of the problem of indifference to the things of God that allows us to sin "with a high hand" while claiming that we are God's people. And yet, if we are honest about our lives, we often face issues and situations and problems that we know we cannot solve or face in our own strength. We may try, but more often than not, we fail when we do. Even secular national leaders turn to God and prayer when the crises become obviously uncontrollable. Yet, too often we do not acknowledge the need for God until it is too late to change our course. And so we are faced with endings.
We are immensely concerned with securing our own future, but too often in the very process of attempting to do so, we create forces that work to destroy it. It is not always that we do so deliberately, but more often that we simply do not realize or understand the long range consequences of putting our own individual interests ahead of the interests of others or of the larger community. We tend to define "normal" as whatever meets our desires and satisfies our wants, without realizing how that might affect others. And so we develop systems and attitudes and modes of behavior that serve our own ends, and reject any calls to accountability in terms of others.
These are facts of life in our modern world. Here it is easy for preachers to slip into the thundering condemnation of sin. Jeremiah had done that, without apology. He had denounced sin in the name of God for many years. And he had looked those people in the eyes and told them they were already dead, physically and spiritually, simply because it was the truth.
But not here. Here Jeremiah lifts his eyes to a future possibility rising from the ashes of a crumbling present. With the Babylonian armies camped outside the walls, with the countryside laid waste, he talks about houses and vineyards and fields.
That is the real power of this message for today. Many people may not be willing to acknowledge their sin or even comprehend the looming disaster that disobedience and rejection of God brings in their lives, perhaps undeservedly or as the consequence of someone else's sin. Yet, there may be signs that they know they cannot create their own future. Even though they have not heeded the warnings for all these years, amid a growing suspicion that their "normal" lives will not continue much longer they need to hear that there is something in the future worth investing in!
Maybe what they need as much or more than condemnation for sin is to hear that there is possibility beyond it. It may not turn them from the consequences, from the horrible unfolding of the chaos that will engulf their lives, families, communities, even nation. But it may give them something on which to build when everything they have built on their own lies in ashes around them. As they survey the brokenness of a past that can never be recovered, and the barrenness of a present that they can no longer control, they need to be able to remember that life can again return to normal. That is really the heart of Jeremiah's message. He knew that someday people would need to know that God had been with them creating a future for them even in their darkest hour when they themselves saw no need for it.
That will not come quickly or easily. And it will not come because we can manage it or control it and put things back the way they were. Some things are just gone. But we need to know that the things that are really important and necessary, even those basic things necessary for life, God can recreate in his future. We need to be called to a future that lies only in the possibility that is anchored in God's grace.
Can we look to the past actions of God as a paradigm for the shape of that future? Can we expect God to work in the future as he has in the past? If that means that God will only do things within the boundaries of our own expectations, no. To do so is simply another way of drawing up plans for God to follow based on what we think is important. That is the significance of Jeremiah (and Jesus) always being at odds with human expectation. In terms of those expectations neither made much sense.
But if we ask whether God can be trusted to work in history, even in our own history, in ways that will enable us to be his people, in ways that go beyond our own expectations, then the answer is "of course!" God's future will not be our idea of normal by any human criteria. But it will be God's future, which is the only "normal" that really matters. Finally, God's future is the only future there is. The only issue is whether we are willing to embrace it with Jeremiah, and invest in it even when there is no earthly evidence that it will come.
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