09. Reflections on Old Testament Prophets (Jeremiah, 2)

Faithfulness in Exile (Jeremiah 29:1-15)

Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (July 16, 2007)

The writings of the prophets tell the story of the first warnings of profound trouble brewing among God’s people in the time of Amos (around 750 B.C.) to the final days of the nation state Judah (around 600 B.C.).  The prophets kept warning of consequences should the people and their leaders not return to God’s intentions for their community life.  The prophets held the society to the standards of God’s law (Torah)–not as a standard for perfection and complete purity but a framework, an orienting point, for the health of their peoplehood.

Drifting from God’s intentions

According to the prophets, the core aspects of the Law were realistic and achievable, at least in large part.  The community could be oriented around justice for vulnerable people, around worship of the true God alone, around generosity and kindness.  And at times it was.

However, all too often, the prophets’ words (and the message of Torah) were disregarded, and the community drifted ever further from the intentions of God.  Corrupt from the inside out, Judah fell victim to power politics and ended up crushed under the hammer of the great, and terrible, Babylonian empire.

As we see in the long book of Jeremiah, when Judah fell, the prophets’ focus changed.  Jeremiah, though he could have, did not gloat that his words were fulfilled.  Rather, he set to work to provide the remnant of the people of God with resources for their ongoing survival.

God’s promises, especially that Abraham’s descendants would bless all the families of the earth, remain in effect.  The destruction of the temple and of Judah as a nation state does not signal the end of the promise.  In fact, the judgment on the Hebrew nation state actually brings clarity.  The heart of the promise will be fulfilled not through human power politics but through servant communities of God’s people.  Jeremiah famously anticipates a “new covenant” based on transformed hearts faithful to the law of God (Jer 31:31-34).

The end of the Hebrew nation state was not a sign of God’s unfaithfulness.  The nation state failed to remain faithful to Torah, and as a sign of God’s faithfulness the promise continues apart from this failure.

“Seek the welfare of the city”

Jeremiah 29 makes clear God’s adaptation to the new situation.  God exhorts the remnant now exiled from their Palestinian homeland, to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7).

The promise will no longer be channeled through the nation state but through faithful communities in diaspora. “Diaspora” literally means “a scattering of seeds” and describes the existence and sustenance of communities separate from the “homeland.”

God does promise a return (“only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I … bring you back to this place,” 29:10).  However, even after this return, the community will never be the same.  And many remain in Babylon and scatter to other areas throughout the world.

The promise is sustained from now on by minority communities, without dominant political power.  They witness to the promise through their embodiment of God’s will in their common life.  Throughout the world, even in the heart of the Empire, this counter-cultural witness bears much fruit.

Jesus followed closely in the tradition of Jeremiah’s call when he also rejects power politics and the temptation of subordinating the promise to the nation state.  Jesus, echoing Jeremiah’s call to live out Torah in Diaspora, sent his followers to the ends of earth, calling on them to “make disciples of all nations,” teaching people of all nations to obey everything he had commanded his disciples (Matt. 28:19-20).

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