Proper 21

September 30, 2001
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Reading 2: 
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
Reading 3: 
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Reading 4: 
Luke 16:19-31
By Barry A. Woodbridge

The Hebrew Bible lesson from Jeremiah 32 will probably cause the most consternation and confusion for the congregation, as well as require additional work for the exegete and preacher. It will therefore probably not be the subject of too many sermons. Just for that reason, the process-informed preacher should be particularly attentive to its proposals.

The text has internal chronological/dating problems, logistical problems, and a financial investment theory which seems contrary to Smith Barney and every other major investment firm!

The chronological and logistical problems involve Jeremiah being imprisoned by Zedekiah (a continuing theme from 21:1-7) while Jerusalem is being besieged by Babylonians, and while his cousin Hanamel still has free access to Jerusalem and Jeremiah. The real estate transactions in the text hardly seem possible while under attack. Thus, the text is heavily redacted and is not concerned with preserving a chronologically accurate military history. For a redactional analysis of this text, refer to Robert P. Carroll's Jeremiah: A Commentary in the Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986, pp. 618-623).

The trajectory of the text involves in incursion of the Word of Yahweh, even in the midst of on going war. This alone should qualify it as a timely text for the third week after terrorist attacks on our nation, an increasing readiness for war, and a stock market of declining investments. Carroll suggests, "The purchase of land during a harsh siege by the Babylonians may be presented as a hope for the future in the text, but in real-life terms such an action would be the most foolhardy of treasonous acts. Consider the matter. In a time of invasion and siege why buy land that might never be occupied? Might it not be the case that the man who was prepared to make such a purchase was in fact a traitor, a collaborator with the enemy who stood to gain after the nation's defeat?" (Carroll, 621).

Thus it is better to consider this narrative a proposal not about bad war time investments but about Jeremiah as a representative of the faithful community who stakes its stewardship on there being a future of hope.

Many of us are concerned at this juncture in our nation's history that our country may once again embark on an unwinnable war. In spite of our local efforts and messages to our nation's leaders, such military action may occur, leaving us somewhat powerless over this course of action. We may feel entrapped again by a military industrial complex seemingly impervious to our persuasive activity.

Yet each of our actions does count, even if that does not register in our present time. We can proclaim this message: that every right action in response to the divine initiative is made everlastingly persuasive and effective beyond the moment that action was taken.

Last week Mayor Guilliani in New York City made an unusual announcement. He was trying politely to thank those who have wanted to come to New York City to participate in the rescue efforts. He said they had enough help and medical support for what few lives could be saved. Then he added, "If you really want to help us, come to New York and spend a little money! Do your Christmas shopping early this year." Some may have initially reeled from his apparent capitalistic profit-maximizing concern. But in light of our text, there was another way to hear his proposal: "Don't let the war of terrorism paralyze you. Participate in our future as your future by buying something you will not need for a few months." He meant their social well being would be diminished (loss of jobs) unless this society acted on a hopeful future precisely in the midst of ground level zero of a war-like zone.

So Jeremiah makes an investment in a piece of questionable land presently under siege and possibly to be leveled by Babylon. Why? Because the creative, transforming divine word had already created a future possibility and had beaconed Jeremiah to participate in it!

Proper stewardship continues as the connecting theme in the other lections. I Timothy 6 warns of the dangers of wealth when it creates a false sense of security and becomes an end in itself.

If we recall the Gospel lesson from a week ago (which we did not comment on at that time), the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, the parable of the rich person with a manager ("Parable of the Dishonest Steward") in Luke 16:1-13 provides further reflections on stewardship and a sustainable economy, especially in a continuing dialogue with this week’s lection from Jeremiah discussed above. This foreman, personal manager, or agent disqualifies himself in a self-serving act of diminishing the gross personal debt of his master's debtors! To reduce debt, to free ourselves from the tyranny and anxiety of a national credit card debt now expected to exceed all previous balances, is healthy and an ethical act. But having it artificially reduced, as the manager/steward does in the parable, does not create a sustainable economy. To combine the point of the parable with the example of Mayor Guilliani above, while greater commercial Christmas spending would not be a commendable action, finding ways to invest in the creative arts and endeavors of New Yorkers who might otherwise be out of jobs, would be a more proper way to invest in their and our future without at the same time perpetuating a greater indebtedness. The parable points us to an honest and honorable means of accounting for all we have been given. Perhaps the appropriate action in our situation would be to employ those New York financial, investment, service, and retail workers now out of jobs in an effort to find ways to distribute food and goods to Afghans living so marginally! Jeremiah and Luke could have imagined no less a shocking possibility.

(All texts quoted are from NRSV)