Buying a Field

On the eve of catastrophe what farsighted actions will we take – in the spirit of Jeremiah’s purchase of the field in Anathoth?

For several Sunday’s we’ve been listening to the prophet Jeremiah in our O.T. readings. He was born into a priestly family in Anathoth – a village in the territory of Benjamin around 650 BC. He’s believed to have died in Egypt probably around 570 BC. He’s the major prophet active during the particularly turbulent decades preceding and following the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC.

In today’s passage Jeremiah is imprisoned on king Zedekiah’s orders in the court of the palace guard as the Babylonian forces besiege Jerusalem. Silencing a prophet is always a fruitless task. Deprived of his personal liberty and access to the king Jeremiah dictates to his scribe Baruch – who then publicly proclaimed his master’s words of warning to the Temple congregations.

While locked up in the guardhouse, the word of the Lord came to him saying that his cousin Hanamel will offer him the right of redemption on a field in his home village of Anathoth. One might speculate that Hanamel, surveying the dire situation clearly wants to liquidate his assets in preparation for possible hasty flight. His luck’s in. On the eve of destruction, one might think Jeremiah would have more pressing things on his mind than to buy a piece of land that to all intents and purposes will be of no use to him.

The similarities between 6th-century Judah and 21st-century America may at first sight not seem obvious to the historically untutored eye. Yet, his was, like ours is, a world on the precipice of unprecedented upheaval and crisis. As a consequence of Zedekiah’s foolish foreign adventurism, the armies of Nebuchadnezzar – for the second time in 10 years -had arrived at the gates of Jerusalem- this time to end, once and for all, the Judahite problem.

After the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel 721, Judah had benefited from a refugee influx of Israel’s elite. They brought with them cultural and economic expertise that transformed Judah from an underpopulated backwater into a successful and economically prosperous trading nation – an ancient Singapore on the Jordan.

The parallels with today’s America are uncanny. In the years preceding 587 trade was strong, the equivalent of the stock market was buoyant, Judah’s GDP was growing.  But economic prosperity fostered in Zedekiah dangerous foreign policy ambitions – ambitions that led directly to the destruction of the city and state in 587.

As in contemporary America 6th-century Judah’s prosperity was very unequally distributed with all the predictable societal consequences of inequality of wealth. Money corrupted politics hastened the decline in moral and ethical standards in public life because as Carlos Lozada in the New York Times on September 22nd writes the big lie is predicated on the big joke. The big joke is that if everyone is lying and everyone knows that everyone is lying – so no harm done.

Jeremiah warns against external threats brought about by the kings ill-judged foreign policy adventures, while at the same time he decries the greed and abuse of power that was leading directly to a collapse in moral and ethical standards in public life. When the wellspring of prosperity is poisoned – as we well know – such prosperity paradoxically exacerbates institutional and moral decline.  Jeremiah’s message is a call for repentance among the haves for their corruption and exploitation, and among the have-nots for their willingness to be conned and bought off with lies.

Like the 8th-century prophet Hosea, Jeremiah is a prophet of lamentation known some quarters as the weeping prophet. A major theme of Hosea’s is the land’s lament. Hosea is writing some 200 years before Jeremiah – during the social and political instability prior to the Assyrian destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 721 BC stress the land’s lament. Interestingly, archeological evidence points to serious changes in climate patterns during this period may well have impacted international relations and been a factor in Israel’s decline.  

Andi Lloyd writing in The Land Mourns  in the latest edition of Christian Century Magazine notes that for Hosea the land’s lament is not the equivalent of our modern environmental grieving over:

…. pollution or strip-mining or any material injury to itself. The land’s lament, to which Hosea gives voice, is wider than that. The land’s lament speaks a foundational ecological truth: when one part of creation goes awry, the whole suffers. The land’s grief at what the people have done points to the fundamental reality of our interconnection. …. Therefore the land mourns …. because the people have gone astray, in all the familiar ways: There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. (Hosea 4:1–2)

The land mourns is a metaphor for a fundamental imbalance between the interconnected elements in the creation. The prophetic vision was a correction to this imbalance – restoring a vision of a world as it ought to be. However, the prophets lived as we do, in a world of too much injustice and too little love fraying the threads that bind the creation together. Andi Lloyd writes:

Now, as then, the fabric that connects all of creation is badly torn: torn by manifold injustices wrought and perpetu­ated by the exploitative systems in which we live, torn by ideologies of scarcity that teach us to love too narrowly and too little. To mourn is to speak that truth to the lies that prop up the denial on which the status quo depends.

One of the major consequences of a world out of balance is the loss hope. We become despondent. Our confidence in progress and belief in a future better than the past is undermined – and despair distorts our vision.

Through repentance Jeremiah preaches the restoration of lost hope. Before the fall of Jerusalem, he sounds the voice of warning. But after the fall of the city rather than a voice of I told you so – amid the destruction of the nation he proclaims a message of present time faith in future hope.

In contrast to Psalm 137’s voice of lament: 

How can we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land?  If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem as my greatest joy!…

Jeremiah counsels the Exiles to:

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. 

The realization of future hope begins now through faith as present time action. On the eve of destruction, one might think Jeremiah would have more pressing things on his mind than to buy a piece of land that to all intents and purposes will be of no use to him – which at first sight seems a futile thing to do. He pays the price, signs the deed, instructing Baruch to place it into an earthenware vessel:

in order that they may last for a long time.  For thus says the Lord of hosts, houses, and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

Today, we are living in the face of multiple crises; national, international, and environmental. We struggle against despair and despair’s bitter fruit – helplessness. In our disempowerment we fail to see the interconnections that link all our current crises together so that to take steps to address one is to impact the larger whole. For instance, to tackle the corruption fueled by dirty money and special interests in political life is also to increase transparency and reduce the temptation for dishonesty in public life.  In raising the moral and ethical standards of politicians by no longer voting for politicians who habitually lie about climate change we will make progress in addressing the environmental crisis. In standing up to regimes who exploit their carbon extraction wealth to threaten and wage war on their neighbors, we have a strong incentive to wean ourselves off carbon dependance thus lessening the inevitability of environmental catastrophe.

So you see we are far from helpless!

On the eve of catastrophe what farsighted actions will we take – in the spirit of Jeremiah’s purchase of the field in Anathoth?

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