The text from Jeremiah is a message sent to community leaders in the midst of the captivity of the people of Judah in Babylon. Jeremiah advises them how to live.
Jeremiah’s history as a prophet was long-lived. His prophecy spans from the religious reformation of Josiah to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem as well as the years the people were exiled in Babylon. His reflections directly engaged the difficult questions the people were asking in exile: “Has God abandoned us? What does God require of us?”
Look particularly at the advice given to the people:
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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” (Jeremiah 29:5-7 NRSV).
Jeremiah expects that the people will live in Babylon for at least two generations. There they are to build a community in the midst of their captors. They are to live life in this strange world. And then, we hear shocking, and probably disturbing advice, “seek the welfare of the city.” Normally, the people would pray for the welfare of Jerusalem; yet, this prophecy tells them to seek the welfare of their captors’ city.
“What?” is all the people could say. Jeremiah’s answer to the troubling questions listed above is clear. God expects/requires them to fulfill the covenant daily, over and over. Or simply put, God expects them to live the expectations requested in the daily prayer recited by Jewish believers, the Shema Yisrael: Love God and Love neighbor. In fact, for Jeremiah, the people had not been seeking the welfare of their home in Judah. They had not been loving God or neighbor. Instead, they were creating social barriers, oppressing their own people, seeking solace in military power, and ignoring the love God expected of them. For Jeremiah, that is why they got in trouble! That is why they were defeated, broken, and captive! God expected them to love and to do all they could to build up the community’s vitality, yet they did not.
The God Jeremiah understood, though, was a forgiving God. God restores community. While God had not lost love for them, God expected them to be faithful and fruitful. What they had not been doing in Judah, they were now called to do in Babylon: “Seek the welfare of the city.”
Love God and love neighbor are not prayer requests to be taken lightly, to engage when convenient. They are expectations. They are the hope of all of life. In fact, when one lives a life of community building and seeks the welfare of the stranger, one is witnessing to the power of love that God has injected in creation. As the Psalmist proclaims: “Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth” (Ps 66:1 NRSV). God acted for the Hebrew people, freeing them from captivity in Egypt (Ps 66:6), but God’s vision is all encompassing. God keeps “watch on the nations” (Ps. 66: 7).
In the gospel reading, Jesus’ actions also point to the building of community. He healed a group of lepers, whose illness had isolated them and separated them from community. He tells them to “go and show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17: 14 NRSV). That action would allow them to re-enter the community. In fact, for Jesus, acts of healing, feeding, and forgiving always rebuild community. They were signs of the “realm of God.” Jesus expected his followers to engage in healing, feeding, forgiving, and rebuilding community.
Perhaps, today’s worship and preaching can focus on the surprise answer to the question of whose welfare we are called to seek. The advice to the exiles is amazing. In last week’s texts, we saw the pain and anger of the exiles. They were quite lost. They even prayed for extreme punishment of their captors (Ps 137:9). Yet, the answer to their prayers and pain comes in a shocking way – with advice to settle down, live life, and seek the welfare of Babylon.
The Jewish daily Shema prayer is so simple, yet so difficult. Its power is amazing, but we ignore it again and again. Jesus would have prayed it daily. Jesus reminded all who asked about the greatest commandments: “Love God and love neighbor.” Honestly, that is the same as the advice of Jeremiah to the captives in Babylon. Healing comes as we work to restore community. Life is enriched as we build community, as we love God and neighbor.
“Shout joyfully to God, all the earth! Sing praises to the glory of God’s name!” (Ps 66:1-2 CEB). We indeed make God’s name “glorious” when our lives and action witness. Isn’t that at the heart of today’s texts? Jeremiah is clear: “Seek the welfare of the city.” Jesus calls: rebuild community.
Questions for Reflection:
- Think about the impact of the words, “seek the welfare of the city” on the captives in Babylon. What would be the impact of that advice for us, our neighbors, communities, and cities?
- We all struggle with questions of illness, loss, and separation. The pain of the people in exile was profound. The “lepers” Jesus met were excluded from their communities. Sometimes these questions consume us. What questions are consuming those around you?
- An amazingly big question is: “Where do these texts call us and those around us to work for healing?”
The Rev. Dr. Jack Seymour ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, where he taught for 30 years. He is an ordained elder in the Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church. Jack is the author of Teaching Biblical Faith: Leading Small Group Bible Studies (Abingdon, 2015) and Teaching the Way of Jesus: Educating Christians for Faithful Living (Abingdon, 2014). He has retired in Nashville, TN, where he is active writing and teaching in the church.