Bible text: Jeremiah 29:1-14
I’ve been reading the Bible or hearing it read all my life. Many of its texts are as familiar as those nursery rhymes my mother taught me as a toddler. Yet I can be reading an old familiar passage and something in the text jumps up and slaps me in the face. Then I slap my palm against my forehead and I say, “Why haven’t I seen that before?”
That happened to me two weeks ago. I was preparing my sermon for the upcoming Sunday. The lectionary had assigned Jeremiah 29:4-7 as the Old Testament reading.
The passage is a fragment from a letter the prophet sends to a group of Judean exiles. They were relocated to Babylon in 597 B.C. as a part of the settlement that the Babylonian king imposed on the submissive government of Judah when he besieged the city of Jerusalem. The exiles included the boy king, his mother, nobles, priests, and productive artisans of the city.
The exiles were pining to return home. Word from a prophet named Hananiah assured them that they would return soon, within two years. But Jeremiah says Hananiah does not speak the word of the Lord. Their exile will indeed be long, several generations long.
In his letter to the exiles, Jeremiah tells them that the Lord is calling on them to settle down in Babylon. They are to build houses, plant gardens, marry and raise families.
Then comes this word from God: “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.” The exiles are to look upon Babylon as if it were their new home, for in fact it will be their home for generations to come.
These are familiar words. I’ve read them many times, but I had never quite appreciated what startling counsel is coming from the Lord. The Lord is telling the exiles to seek the welfare of their enemies. The Babylonians after all are the ones who carried them into exile. Some ten years later they will return to Jerusalem to snuff out Judean independence, to capture the city, to burn the temple, and to raze the city to ground.
The exiles are to work for the welfare of Babylon in spite of all the empire has done and will do to them and their homeland. Furthermore they are to pray for their enemies.
Now those are the words that jumped out at me and slapped me in the face. I had heard them before, but never stopped to soak in their import. The exiles are to pray for the Babylonians.
To give a modern comparison, it is as if God were to tell Americans to pray for Al Qaeda and seek its welfare. We would be outraged. So must have been those Judean exiles. Who is this God that is asking for such an absurdity?
Yet that is the word of God to those exiles. How surprising can this God be?
We often think that Jesus is unique in his vision when in the Sermon on the Mount he counsels his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Matthew 5:44). Now Jesus was unique, but not every point of his teaching is. The essence of his teaching on loving our enemies is already present in the Old Testament in these words of God to the Babylonia exiles. I had never seen that before.
Many Christians have traditionally regarded the God of the Old Testament as a God of wrath and the God of the New Testament as a God of love. It’s a false reading of both testaments. As this passage in Jeremiah makes clear, there is a deep continuity between the vision of the Old and the New. We need to be acutely sensitive to that reality.