As I often do, I’m slightly altering the Lectionary’s range of verses for next week, preaching Jeremiah 32:1-15 without skipping verses. I’m not sure what the editors found offensive about verses 3b to 5, but I’m going to use them.
Jeremiah 32 invites the modern reader into a scene so alien that its significance threatens to disappear into the fog of allusions and ancient legal terms. But if a reader is willing to walk through that fog, the prophet’s sign is a powerful reminder of the providence of YHWH.
Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem, taken theologically rather than as a piece in an ancient-historical jigsaw puzzle, stands as the end of an era. When he is finished, so too will be the Jerusalem monarchy, Israel’s sense of their identity among the nations. Whatever happens after the Temple falls, no longer will dwelling-in-Canaan be an uncomplicated sign that God’s people are assembled. (It never was before the exile either, but after the exile, that particular self-deception on the part of the Jews will be much more difficult to maintain.) What some–even some prophets–regarded as the inviolable stronghold of YHWH and David was burning around them.
The first part of this reading reveals just how fiercely the city wanted to cling to its illusion–Jeremiah was in jail not for conspiring with the Babylonians but with YHWH. The words that he spoke, with their message of divine wrath, were too much to leave on the streets, and the court of Zedekiah tried to put the truth in a holding cell. They find readily enough that holding the truth in a prison cell simply does not keep what is true from unfolding in the world.
But that’s not where the story ends. A second message from YHWH quickly arrives, one that relies on property laws that are burning up just as quickly as the palaces and temples that fall to Babylon. In the law of Moses, in order to keep the wealthy from accumulating all of the promised land (as Pharaoh had done, in Egypt, in the days of Joseph), laws of redemption kept significant property within the bounds of the clan and the family. YHWH’s message to Jeremiah is to keep those laws going even as the armies of Nebuchadnezzar tightened their grip on the city. Jeremiah is to keep a certain plot, a field, legally within his family, knowing full well that before long, the legal system that distributed and maintained those family free-holds would be nothing. Jeremiah’s gesture, if there were no oracle, would be utter foolishness. But with the word of YHWH behind the gesture, it becomes a sign of hope that, beyond the days of destruction, YHWH’s favor might indeed be waiting still.
So there are two ways to hold truth, at least in this passage: one can, and some do, attempt to hold truth down and hold it in, to prevent the people from hearing the hard truth of our own corruption. Such holding-truth will always be a step too slow, unable to persist indefinitely. But there’s another way to hold truth, to preserve it in vessels for future generations, to present the people as yet unknown with a sign that, before the cataclysm, there was hope. That second way of holding truth, a conspiracy against the powers of forgetting and ignoring, points to a true hope in a true God, an acknowledgment of our own inability to dodge our own wretchedness and at the same time our own beatitude as YHWH refuses to let us destroy ourselves finally. Such is the tension at the heart of faith, if our faith is in the God of Jeremiah.
May our faith always be in the God of Jeremiah.