Proper 21C / Ordinary 26C / Pentecost +19
September 29, 2013
The Hebrew Bible reading this week begins in a state of total emergency: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 (Jeremiah 32:1-2).
For those of you who are unfamiliar with military history, a siege is a very, very nasty thing. When your city is under siege, it means that it has been completely surrounded by enemy troops, who have cut off all access to or escape from the city. If you are lucky, the enemy will swiftly overtake the city, and you will either die a quick death at the tip of a sword or you will be carted off into exile. If you are not so lucky, the enemy will bide its time, cut off all your food and drinkable water, and wait for you to die a long, miserable death due to starvation and disease. Then they will take over.
While this may or may not have been the actual state of Jerusalem at the time this passage was written, it is clear that the author wants us in the frame of mind of the citizens of Jerusalem under siege: bewildered and utterly hopeless. If Jeremiah were in jail, his situation would be even more dire, as prisoners are not at the top of the list when food gets rationed.
In the middle of this state of siege, Jeremiah is commanded by the Lord (while in jail) to do something really weird: Buy a bunch of land in the suburbs from his cousin Hanny. HUH??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” (vv. 6-7).
This land deal is worse than a bridge to nowhere. When the Babylonians overran Judea, they torched crops, slaughtered livestock (or captured them for their own) and salted the fields to sterilize them. Any land left behind would be a smoking ruin, and anyone living on it would be doomed to starvation.
However, Jeremiah – inspired by YHWH – is very exacting about this land deal. The author goes into minute detail about the cost of the land, the weighing out of the money paid for it, the deed, the seal, the witnesses, and finally the preservation of the deed for posterity: “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” (vv.14). Jeremiah is acting as if this land deal matters, because for him it will. He is acting as if he is in this game for the long haul. He taking YHWH’s word that he (or his family) will outlast the Babylonians and will be around to dig up that earthenware jar to reclaim his birthright and begin healing the land.
This Torah portion ends with the verse, “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (vv.15). Here, houses, fields and vineyards are not viewed as mere commodities to be bought and sold on the open market. For God’s people, land was a part of a holy relationship between the people, YHWH and the earth. The Hebrews believed that “God has settled the Israelites as resident aliens on familial ‘holdings’; the term ahuzza is consistently used … to designate land held by a farm family on the condition of obedience” (Davis, Ellen F. Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible). The restoration of land to its family holders was not just a matter of regaining property. It was a matter of being made whole again with “the Beloved Community” (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.), economically, spiritually and physically.
So what on earth do we make out of this reading for today?
Today, there are many ways in which we are under siege, both literally (as those affected by violence – see “Stop Being Reasonable“) and economically (as those potentially affected by a looming government shut-down and those already suffering unemployment or under-employment). The first and most understandable thing that people do under siege is to circle the wagons and begin rationing (whether food, money or emotions). When we do this, however, we run the risk of cutting ourselves off from the very things that we need to survive the siege – food, sustenance and community networks.
While acting prudently is certainly advisable, it is also good to occasionally act as if there is a hopeful future by continuing to invest in a little something: whether that “little something” is a savings account, your religious organization of choice, your child’s college fund or your own health. That small bit of money, held in an earthenware jar, is your bet – along with YHWH – that the siege is not permanent. This, too, shall pass. And when it does, you and your family will be in a better position to heal yourselves and your community, in relationship with God.