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Prophets, Profits, & Promise

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Before I read the text I need to explain the context or it won’t make any sense. For most of his ministry, Jeremiah has been the prophet of gloom and doom. He has pronounced God’s judgment upon the leaders of Judah. He has assured them that God will punish them for their unfaithfulness. He has even told the people what form God’s punishment will take: they will be defeated by the Babylonians. And for all his trouble he gets put into prison—by the king of his own nation—and charged with treason.

And now the Babylonians are at the gates. They have already secured all the land outside the city of Jerusalem. They are ready to invade the holy city itself, and there is no doubt that they will win and will reduce Jerusalem to rubble. But at the very moment that his prophecies have proven to be accurate, at the very moment that his entire ministry is proven to be from God, Jeremiah doesn’t say “I told you so.” Jeremiah changes his tune. He goes from doom and gloom to consolation and hope. In fact, chapters 30 to 33 are called “The Book of Consolation.” But still—the enemies are at the gates.

This is where our story picks up. I’m going to start reading at verse 6 of chapter 32.

Jeremiah said, 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.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 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. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

So to summarize: Jerusalem is about to fall to the Babylonians when Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel comes to him, saying “Have I got a deal for you!” Hanamel wants Jeremiah to buy his land in Anathoth, “for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Here’s what that means: At this time, because it was an agrarian society, land was a matter of life and death. Having land meant you had a way to support your family, now and in the years to come. If someone fell on hard times and needed to sell the land, the Book of Leviticus told them that “land could not be sold outside the family, if such a sale would affect the family’s ability to sustain itself.”[1] The person who bought it was called a kinsman redeemer. By having a relative purchase the land, it stayed in the family, and it could be sold back to the original owner if their situation improved.

But there is a problem with this land of Hanamel’s that he wants Jeremiah to buy. Anathoth is north of Jerusalem, which means it has already fallen to the Babylonians. It is in enemy territory. So the land is worthless. It is less than worthless, if that’s even possible. But Jeremiah responds to the request by buying this land that he will never live on. Not only that, but he gets witnesses to make sure he isn’t cheating his cousin, and he signs the deed and makes it public so that all the councilmen will see it. He is counting on them to gossip—to spread the word of the silly thing this crazy prophet has done now.

From a financial standpoint, this may be one of the worst real estate deals in history. But Jeremiah wasn’t after financial gain. Nor was he looking for a great place to retire. He was making a statement about the future of his people. “Jeremiah’s purchase of property is a down payment on that future, a foretaste of the promise.”[2] Jeremiah says, Yes, destruction is at hand. Yes, everything I told you has come true. Yes, we are about to be completely, horrendously, magnificently defeated. And “Houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.” Jeremiah was not seeing the world through “rose-colored glasses.” (He was not a rose-colored glasses kind of guy.) Nor was it mere optimism. It was much stronger than that, and less common I’m afraid.

It was hope … and hope is what we need. Hope is what says something better will come even if we can’t see it. Hope is what says joy will return. Hope is what says the addiction will not win. Hope is what says the disease does not name me. Hope is what says even if death appears to win, it will not have the last word.

If you are in need of some hope this morning, I invite you to sit with that thought. Stay with it. Let it echo and reverberate inside you. Stay with the hope.

But for the rest of us, let’s go a little deeper into the text because it has more for us. I gave you the immediate context of Jeremiah’s action but not the history; and this is important so I’m going to quote it to get it right. “In the eighth century BCE the kingdoms of Israel and Judah began to experience economic desperation and prosperity on a scale they had never seen before. For several hundred years [before], families had cultivated mixed crops on small plots of land. In good years their subsistence harvest was able to support their families and herds, with a little left over. In lean years, neighbors extended loans to one another that could be paid back in better times. And in dire circumstances, such as insurmountable debt or untimely death, kin could be counted on to redeem (purchase) fields so that land remained in the family. But this mutual system of support came to a stunning end as the rulers of both Israel and Judah began to consolidate land in order to grow single crops that could be exported and traded for luxury goods and military hardware.

Once this land consolidation began under monarchical leadership, the only option for families who fell on hard times was to borrow from moneylenders at exorbitant interest rates. This eventually led to families forfeiting their land to pay their debts. The local courts on which common people depended for justice were powerless, having been suborned on behalf of the king.”[3]

Does this sound familiar? It’s the widening of the gap between haves and have nots, a system driven not by success and hard work but by greed and exploitation. This is why Jeremiah is called the weeping prophet. This is why he kept pronouncing doom and gloom. He had been castigating the leaders for breaking the covenant and destroying lives. From Jeremiah chapter 5: “For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others…. They do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.”

“The Judah envisioned by God and announced by Jeremiah is one where … land will again be redeemed by kin according to God’s covenant, not taken by greedy rulers.”[4]

He was proclaiming hope—not just hope that they would one day be released from Babylonian captivity, but also that they would one day be free from oppressive systems within their own society. And he made it a public deal because you don’t change systemic injustice by being quiet. Or patient.

The applications to our world today are numerous. My question is: Do we share Jeremiah’s hope that our injustices can be healed? Whether your answer is yes or no, what are we going to do about it? Will we, like Jeremiah, put our money where our mouth is? Do we have enough hope? You might say it takes faith rather than hope, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But here is why I use the word “hope.”

A few years ago John Jenkins, the President of the University of Notre Dame, wrote an article in which he talks about optimism. According to Father Jenkins, “Optimism is . . . the conviction that whatever the challenges, the situation is not really deeply problematic or grave. No matter how bad the situation, a solution . . . is just around the corner.”[5] He then goes on to talk about the events leading up to World War II. He says, “It is striking how many leaders were committed to a kind of dogged optimism in the face of looming disaster. Hitler and the Nazis could be mollified, they assured themselves and others; they were not a serious threat. Such optimism might have been justified when Hitler first took power. But as promise after promise was broken, as Jews were more and more victimized, as one small nation after another was overrun, as the preparations for war advanced, it is hard to understand this attitude. Some seem to have been committed to an optimism that led them to believe firmly that the threat was not so serious and disaster could be avoided, until the bloodiest and most destructive war in human history was upon them.”[6] Sheer optimism can be a dangerous thing. It convinces us there is no problem and so we do not work for a solution.

The opposite of optimism is, of course, pessimism. If the optimist believes the problems aren’t serious, the pessimist believes the problems aren’t solvable. And if a problem isn’t solvable, then response is futile. We just need to accept the doom that is upon us.

Both extremes lead us to the same place. They excuse us from serious thought and courageous action.

As Jeremiah knew, hope does not excuse us. In fact, hope demands. “It demands first of all that we see the world as it is. It demands that we assess, seek to understand, analyze, think, argue, seek solutions, overcome frustrations and failures. And, most importantly, it demands the courage and commitment of common action.”[7]

Blind optimism is easy. Sheer pessimism is simple. But hope? Hope is hard. Hope says, “Yes, I see this problem. We can defeat it.” Hope proclaims, “Yes, I know it’s a demanding/grueling/heart-wrenching problem. We will rise above it.” Hope exclaims, “Yes, I know we’ve never done it this way. We will change . . . and be better for it.” Hope demands. Hope insists. Hope calls us and claims us for its own. What we need is a little hope.

American children’s book author John Green says, “I believe in hope, in what is . . . called ‘radical hope.’ I believe there is hope for all of us, even amid the suffering. And that’s why I write fiction, probably. It’s my attempt to keep that fragile strand of radical hope.”

Hope is what drives us to feed the hungry, and hope is what makes us stand up to political agendas that take away their assistance. Hope is what drives us to the polls. Hope is what says violence is not the answer. Hope is what says peace will prevail if we let it. Hope is what says justice for all is not just a dream.

Hope. Jeremiah had it. Do you? Do I? Do we?

 

[1] Sharon Peebles Burch, Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 4, p. 102.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Damico, Noelle. Proper 21. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year C, p. 400-401

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jenkins, John I. “The Demands of Hope.” Thirty Good Minutes, airdate December 21, 2008.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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