Jeremiah has delivered dire warnings, desperate weeping, and discouraging words for the last three weeks in the lectionary. Now that the Babylonian siege is an immanent reality he is ready to offer hope. This small section in chapters 30-33 is called the Little Book of Consolation. It certainly is small compared to his words of doom, but this section would have profound impact on the future of prophecy in exile. Jeremiah is now in jail, probably because the last thing King Zedekiah wants is to have the prophet
running around telling the defenders of the city, “I told you so,” and demoralizing everyone. But Jeremiah, being a true contrarian is through with all that. Now he is ready to buy the farm.
Jeremiah now seems to be getting investment advice from God (wouldn’t that be great!) True to a vision from God, his cousin Hanamel comes and offers to sell a field in
Anathoth to Jeremiah. So Jeremiah goes through all the appropriate legal deeds and buys the field for 17 shekels of silver. It looks like Jeremiah is following the investment advice famously quoted from Baron Rothschild, “Buy when blood is flowing in the streets.” Human emotions often get in the way when we invest, which is why most people lose money in the stock market. People get excited about the stock market when it is peaking and buy in, full of greed, or as Alan Greenspan called it “irrational exuberance,” just before the market becomes a bursting bubble and takes your money.
Then people hold their investments all the way down to the darkest days and finally give up and sell out at the bottom of the market. Then a few weeks later the market shoots up
again as people watch in utter frustration and vow to never invest again. Until the market peaks and they change their mind and lose money all over again.
Contrarian investors, like Warren Buffett, sell their stocks when taxi cab drivers and shoe shine boys start giving stock tips and they buy when everyone says investing is nothing buy gambling.
I doubt Jeremiah was interested in investment philosophy, but he understood the same flaw in human emotion. People often ignore potential disaster in good times and don’t prepare for the lean times, and when things are bad, they can’t see the hopeful signs of change. We are often stuck in our temporary emotions and can’t see the bigger
picture from a historical perspective. We forget the lessons of the past and fail to adequately prepare for the future. Jeremiah was a contrarian in the same vein as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who said that the job of the preacher was “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”
Jeremiah had a practical and a theological purpose in buying
this field form his cousin. How much was Jeremiah paying for this field? Based on Talmud measures of conversion, this may have been three to four months of an average salary, which means Jeremiah paid foreclosure prices for the field.
And why not, since Nebuchadnezzar was about to ravage suburban property
values around all of Jerusalem? Who buys real estate that is about to become
worthless? In essence what Jeremiah was probably doing for his cousin was giving him enough money to escape and go to Egypt and start over. The passage notes he
carefully weighed the pure silver he was paying which would hold value in any
You have probably heard the phrase “buy the farm” before, in the context that someone has died. According to answers.com:
The phrase originated during WWI. If a soldier was killed the death benefit was sufficient for the surviving family members to purchase a farm. Hence, a soldier who was killed, “bought the farm.” It also might refer to the play and movie “Of Mice and Men”. At the end of the story when George has to kill Lenny, George assures Lenny that he (George) has indeed bought the farm where they will both live happily together.
Depending on the origin, the meaning is different. In one case it means that from one person’s sacrifice comes another person’s hope. Or it can mean offering a false sense of security to someone who is about to die.
Jeremiah’s message is akin to the first meaning, though people may have thought he was not giving them the kind of hope they wanted. Clearly Jeremiah did not expect to benefit himself from the farm he bought. Jeremiah had a larger
theological purpose in mind. At the end of the passage he makes this pronouncement:
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. 15For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:
Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
This is meant to be a hopeful message, though I’m not sure everyone took it that way
at first. Jeremiah’s listeners probably
wept at the thought for it meant their doom was sealed. Few would escape the impending disaster of the Babylonian armies. The options were
death or exile. They were hoping for God to stop the disaster. While it is too
late for that, Jeremiah is trying to reassure people that God is with them even
in disaster and God will bring a hopeful future, but it may not be in our human
timing. There are times when we reap the wonderful promises of God, and times when we must endure and keep hope alive, even if it is holding firm for another generation.
I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. saying, “The arm of history is long, but it
bends towards justice.” King knew he would not see his dream of equality realized in his lifetime. He knew that the struggle of black Americans had been going on for centuries since landing on these shores in slave
ships. There had been progress along the way, with the Civil War ending slavery, but it would take 99 years before the Civil Rights Act would be signed into law.
It has taken several decades of bitter struggle to enact this law with
measurable progress, but there is always more work to do. Forty years after
Martin Luther King was assassinated, we have elected a black President of the United States. That was inconceivable in 1964, the year I was born. Most of the people who struggled and sacrificed for the greater but imperfect equality we have today never lived to see the dream.
The main point here I take from Jeremiah buying the farm is that we can have faith
in God’s providence, even when disaster is upon us, for that will not be the
final word in God’s story. It is a reminder that all the treasurers of faith that we have are an inheritance of sacrifice from saints of previous generations. Who we are today has been passed from Jeremiah, to Jesus of Nazereth, to Martin Luther, to Martin Luther King, Jr, to a church on Mill Street here in Poughkeepsie built by German immigrants seeking a new life, to you today. We are the
current generation entrusted with the great treasure once buried in a field
outside Jerusalem. We are the living community of the
saints, seeking to love God and have compassion for our neighbors. It is
our responsibility to keep hope as a living reality, not merely a past legacy.
There are days when I get bogged down with my own problems and wonder if my struggle is worth it. I find courage in knowing that my struggle is part of the wider human struggle, and the ongoing work of Christ to redeem humanity. The challenge
I put before myself and you today is this: what is the concrete work you need
to do this day to extend Christ’s work and pass it forward. How will your life help “buy the farm?”