If you have ever played the game of Risk, which is a game of world conquest, and helplessly watched your opponent build massive forces all around your tiny little parcel of land, then you can probably begin to understand how the Jewish people felt some six centuries before Jesus as they saw what little was left of their once proud land attacked at will by the armies of the mighty Babylonian Empire. Interestingly, the Babylonians did not act like many other ancient conquerors. Killing and pillaging and laying waste to the land was not their style (at least not all the time).
The first job of the conquering Babylonians was to establish order. And they were as good at this as they were at fighting. Their second job, and here their cleverness begins to show, was to round up all the nobles, chief priests, wealthy merchants, scholars and other distinguished citizens and cart them off to Babylon, the capital of the empire, where they were allowed to live more or less comfortably. They were free to move about the city, conduct business, get married, and raise families. The one thing they couldn’t do was return to their homeland. The cleverness of this move lay in the decreased likelihood that those left behind in the distant captured territories would ever be able to mount any kind of resistance considering that all their potential leaders were gone.
Jeremiah, some of whose words were just heard in today’s text from Jeremiah 29, had an interesting career. Prior to the Babylonian captivity he had been warning the Jewish people that unless they changed their political and religious policies they were doomed to destruction. His verbal attacks are scathing and he often claims to be speaking the words of the Lord. At one point he has the Lord saying, “Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.” Needless to say, that person is not to be found.
Jeremiah has his critics, those who think he is crazy, so when his prophecies end up being fulfilled, and the Jewish people are taken captive by the Babylonians, it would be hard to fault him for gloating. But instead he will do something quite remarkable.
First, though, he offers some practical advice: Jeremiah says build houses, settle down, plant gardens, get married and have children and find husbands and wives for your children. In other words, get on with life. Don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself. Bloom where you find yourself planted, we might say.
Next comes the remarkable part: “… seek the welfare of the city to which you have been exiled and pray to the Lord on its behalf.” As one authority has pointed out, the word “welfare” does not do justice to Jeremiah’s suggestion. Welfare in this text is a translation of the Hebrew word, “shalom.” Shalom is the daily greeting of neighbor to neighbor in the Middle East. It expresses the wish for a deep inner peace, a tranquility of heart and mind and soul. Jeremiah is wishing this for the Babylonians and wants his fellow Jews in exile to wish it for them also. He is suggesting engagement with these people, the cultivation of relationships, the breaking down of barriers that divide.
One can hardly help but think of Jesus reading these words 600 years later, being deeply influenced by this prophet whose words must have resonated deeply with him.
In one of his plays, Arthur Miller has a woman reflect back on her many years of life with her husband in these words: “Everything was always temporary with us… We were always about to be.” I think Jeremiah knew that many of the exiles in Babylon were living lives that were “about to be.” In other words, they had become people of the past and of the future only, wistfully looking back on what had been better times while longingly looking ahead to their return to Israel, all-the-while failing to live in the present moment. It was for just such as these that the writer of Psalm 118 wrote, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
This is not a simplistic “don’t worry, be happy” admonition. Rather it is the stark reminder that the past is just that, we can’t relive it, and the future is not in our hands. Little did the Jews in exile know that most of them would die in exile. So what is asked of us is to take the gift of this day and make of it what we can. Of course, we are not likely to see this day as a gift if we are spending all our time pining over days gone by or worrying about days yet to come.
This is just the practical part of Jeremiah’s advice. It alone is hard enough. But let us not forget the even more difficult spiritual challenge he places before us. And that is the invitation to shalom, the invitation to build relationships with those we are prone to pull away from, the invitation to break down barriers that divide, the invitation to pray that your enemy find the same inner peace and tranquility you desire for yourself. Of course, we are not being asked to do this while living in exile far from home. Does that make the job easier for us… or harder? I don’t know.