And what of the future—land is purchased in a devastated region, wealth is on the wrong side of a terrible abyss.
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
This Sunday’s reading from the prophets begins the gradual turn from judgment to hope in Jeremiah’s prophetic mission. “Gradual” is the word, because Jeremiah did not offer any positive prospects to his contemporary society of stubborn rebels. It will be at least seventy years before any prospects of recovery can be looked for in Judah’s devastated land (Jeremiah 25:11; 29:4-9, and especially verse 10).
Our passage has the same style and mood as the story about Jeremiah’s visit to the potter that we read a few weeks back (Jeremiah 18:1-11). This is not impassioned visions and laments over the judgment and suffering of a wicked people and city. This is a very deliberate and reasoned presentation of a highly improbable message. Like the potter incident, this is prophecy by symbolic action, which the prophet experiences as guidance by God’s word.
The narrative emphasizes the details of this symbolic transaction. You hear what is going to happen, then you hear it happen. You hear about both copies of the purchase deed, and you get details such as the earthen jar in which the deed copies are to be stored. You get the names and once even the grandfather’s name of the principal players of the episode. This is being drawn out in detail as if it were the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. All for a simple message: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (verse 15, NRSV).
The importance of the message must be seen against the background of the occasion. The city is under siege. It has been in rebellion against the world’s main super-power for sometime, and will eventually hold out for a year and a half. This is a very long time for the great power to have to keep troops tied up around one modest fortified city. Ten years before, when Nebuchadnezzar first captured Jerusalem, the siege only lasted around three months. At that time Nebuchadnezzar was satisfied to simply deport major sections of the upper classes and replace the king who had rebelled with another member of the royal family. How is he going to respond now, when he captures the city, to make up for the great expense and delay of this rebellion?
He will be ruthless, and everything will be devastated! Every scrap of wealth will be taken away and all the people will die, be transported to distant lands, or left to wander in the land if they would be of no social value as exiles. With this prospect for the capital city before every realistic observer, what is happening to real estate values, both here and in the suburbs? What will the demand for land in Anathoth (three miles north of Jerusalem) be when Nebuchadnezzar has finished this campaign?
That is the background of Jeremiah’s purchase of the family land in Anathoth. When things look absolutely the worst for future prospects in this county, Jeremiah is directed by God to buy land. (His cousin Hanamel is no doubt delighted to find a gullible relative to purchase land that will probably be confiscated by Babylonians in a few weeks.) But note—it is not land for immediate use. It is for the distant future. The deed to this land is to be preserved in an earthen jar—hopefully secure enough to survive (perhaps in caves, like those near Qumran), to survive both the fall of the city and the years of abandonment that will follow.
This is one more step in Jeremiah’s message (chapters 24 and 29) that the only hope for God’s people lies through the Diaspora.
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16.
The Psalm reading is for those who survive the destruction of the city of refuge besieged by Nebuchadnezzar. When there is no earthly city available for God’s faithful, they remain dependent on God. Being without a holy sanctuary, they are not without God. In their Diaspora is where they now “live in the shelter of the Most High,” abide “in the shadow of the Almighty.”
The first part of the psalm is assurance that there IS such shelter for the faithful one. It is a promise, almost in spite of all odds. The dangers of such unprotected places in the world are drawn out. Safety from the “fowler,” from epidemic in the land (pestilence); safety from terrors at night, from drive-by shootings in the daytime (verse 5), and from all the diseases that threaten by night or day. God’s protected one will be secure from these.
These assurances are given to the individual. Diaspora is a life condition imposed first on individuals—which makes their communing together so much more important than in their old civic society. All the pronouns of Psalm 91 are singular. “You (singular) who live… who abide (singular)…” (verse 1). When the great city is gone, each soul is alone with God. As other testimonies will make clear, this will lead to community, a community of survivors, one that is defined and shaped by having passed through God’s judgment. For such a community of souls who love and trust God, God speaks directly but individually the promises of saving and well-being given in verses 14-16.
I Timothy 6:6-19
The Epistle reading, like so many other readings this season, places the gospel in opposition to seeking riches. First, there IS “gain” for the believer, who attains at least a godly life and “contentment” (sufficiency for life’s needs, see II Corinthians 9:8, where the same word is used). It is the nature of life that we brought nothing into the world with us and will take nothing out with us. And yet—the temptation is before us of wanting to become rich. Thus, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (verse 10, NRSV), and even leads some to abandon their faith.
But the Apostle makes an urgent appeal, in what may be liturgical or hymnic language, to avoid such lures to destruction.
But you, O person of God, flee such things;
pursue righteousness, godliness, faith,
love, endurance, gentleness.
Fight the good fight of the faith,
seize the life of the [coming] age,
to which you were called
and confess the good confession
before the witness of many. (Verses 11-12, my translation.)
The believer is to imitate Jesus in the “good confession” he made before Pontius Pilate. (This is the only mention of Pilate in the New Testament outside the Gospels and Acts.) The “commandment”—all the instructions for the faithful—is to be kept until Jesus’ manifestation at the end time, to whom a doxology is chanted in verses 15-16.
But the Apostle seems to recognize that there are some of the faithful who will be rich—and will not cease to be so immediately. Guidance for them is given in verses 17-19, consisting mostly of urging them to seek the riches of righteousness and generosity rather than of the world. By so doing, they may yet “take hold of the life that is really life” (verse 19).
And when we pass to the Gospel reading, the issue of wealth and greater rewards meets us in the classic story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. (The story is not called a parable in the text—except in a couple of manuscripts—but interpreters invariably classify it as such.)
The emphasis here is on the great disparity during their earthly lives between the wealthy and the poverty-stricken. The rich man is extremely rich, one who dressed exquisitely and dined sumptuously every day. Lazarus (the only figure given a name in Jesus’ parables), lying right outside the entrance to the mansion (through some lapse in local vagrancy laws) was extremely poor, hoping for only some table crumbs. Both the poor man and the rich man died and went to their rewards—and here is where the real story begins.
The rich man burns in hell while the poor man luxuriates in banquet companionship with old patriarch Abraham (one of the clearest Biblical descriptions of this folklore view of the afterlife). The rich man looks up and pleads with Abraham for a little relief from the fire of hell, but Abraham declares that there is an uncrossable abyss between heaven and hell. (“You can’t get here from there!”) The rich man had his rewards in the earthly life; now he pays the price.
Abandoning hope for himself, the rich man has an altruistic urge and asks that Lazarus be sent to warn the rich man’s five brothers, who are still living it up in earthly plenty. The reply is that they have Moses and the prophets, the law and the words of judgment and promise. If the living will not learn their responsibility from these, there is no hope for them, and even a dead man raised back to life will not convince them. (The Lazarus who is raised in the Gospel According to John, chapter 11, does not look like our poor man of Luke’s parable, but the scoffing opponents are not convinced by that resurrection from the dead either.)
(A note on the name Lazarus, which is a shortened form of the name Elazar: “The name ‘El’āzār means ‘God has helped,’ and it is a fitting name for the beggar in this parable, who was not helped by a fellow human being, but in his afterlife is consoled by God,” Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, X-XXIV, Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 1985, p. 1131.)
This story of the rich man and the poor man further confirms, in a more folksy way, the great abyss that this Gospel places between the rich and the saved (compare 6:20 and 24, the rich fool in 12:13-21, comments in 12:32-34, and “mammon” in 16:9-13). This story insists that all have the scriptures to guide and warn them. Such warning should make the extreme disparity between great wealth and great poverty unacceptable to the human community.
It also insists that at some point it is too late. The abyss in judgment, cutting off the chance to return to faithfulness to God in one’s living, will come—leaving only the fires of hell in place of extreme wealth.
So it was told as Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem.