It was not the word from the Lord that the Israelites were hoping or expecting to hear.
God is addressing the survivors of the Babylonian invasion of Israel, almost 600 years before the birth of Christ.
Those who survived the invasion have their lives, but that is about all they have. The survivors were taken away from Israel in chains, forced to live in Babylon, the land of their enemies.
For the last decade they have lived in exile – away from all that is familiar. Foreigners in a strange land, forced there against their will, longing for home.
The psalm we read today captures the anguish they felt:
“By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down, there we wept when we remembered Zion.”
So when a letter arrives from the well-known prophet Jeremiah, a letter containing the word of the Lord, the people must have gathered eagerly in anticipation to hear what message the prophet has for them.
Will God soon be delivering them from exile? Will they be able to return to Israel, that land God promised to their ancestors so long ago? Will God smite their captors and enemies?
So imagine their consternation when they hear these words from the prophet:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
“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.”
In other words, God is saying, settle in. You are here for the long haul.
These are not the words of deliverance the exiles were hoping to hear. They long to go home and instead are told to make the land of their captivity their home, to expect to see their grandchildren born in what they consider an alien land.
I imagine that the deep disappointment they felt at hearing those words turned to anger when the next portion of the prophet’s letter was read.
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,” Jeremiah instructs them, “and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
How those words must have stung! To be told they would be staying in Babylon was bad enough, but now they are instructed to pray for this hostile, foreign land; to work for its welfare; to care about its people, who are their enemies.
Surely these were not popular words (and it’s worth noting that the prophet Jeremiah was later attacked by his own brothers, beaten, put into stocks, thrown into a cistern in Jerusalem, and left to die. The Babylonians saved him.)
But those unpopular and difficult words delivered by the prophet are God’s answer to the question asked in the lament by those rivers of Babylon. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Here is how to do that, God says. By praying for your enemies. By working for the welfare of the city where you live, even if that city is one you are not in by choice.
You sing the Lord’s song in a strange land by living in that land as God instructed you to live in the Promised Land. And at the center of that way of life, God’s way of life, is a concern for the common good, for the welfare of all.
You sing the Lord’s song in a strange land by loving your neighbors, even the ones you have good reasons to despise.
These instructions from God seem especially appropriate for us to hear now.
No, we have not been forced into captivity. Most of us are here by choice, and have the means to leave if we wish. No one is holding us here against our will.
But the truth is that as people of faith we are in exile in a way, exiled from the promised kingdom of God, that place that Jesus promises is very near and yet not here.
And the way we get there, the way we help bring about God’s kingdom, is by doing the same things God instructed the exiles in Babylon to do – by praying and working for the welfare of the community, by caring about the common good.
Concern for the common good seems to be pretty uncommon these days.
I saved an article from The New York Times a while back that talked about the country’s growing “empathy gap” between the haves and have nots.
The article noted that income inequality in this country is at its highest level in a century.
That story was backed up by another in The Times this week, an interview with the authors of a new book, The Triumph of Injustice, noting that for the first time in history the wealthiest 400 Americans, billionaires all, pay a lower tax rate than the poorest Americans.
“This widening gap between the haves and have-less troubles me,” psychologist Daniel Goleman said. “Apart from the financial inequities, I fear the expansion of an entirely different gap, caused by the inability to see oneself in a less advantaged person’s shoes.
“Reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy.”
Having empathy for others who may not be like us, seeking justice for them, is one way that we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
Our friend and Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann points to that empathy gap as part of what he calls “the greatest crisis among us – the crisis of the common good, the sense of community that binds us all together in a common destiny.
“Mature people at their best are people committed to the common good,” he says, “the common good that reaches beyond their private interests and offers human solidarity.”
Too often we seek not the welfare of the whole, but solely the welfare of our own quality of life, ignoring the plight of others. If there are sacrifices to be made, let someone else make them.
If I have health care, why should I worry about someone else who doesn’t? If I can send my children to good private schools, why should I care about the quality of public schools? If I can feed and shelter my family, why should I be concerned about those who can’t?
Those attitudes are all too prevalent in our nation today, and are evidence that as people of faith we are living in a strange land, far from God’s promised reign.
But twice this week I heard God’s song being sung in this strange land.
The first was from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As you may know, the Supreme Court heard arguments this week about whether members of the LGBT community are protected by the 1964 Civil Rights law barring employment discrimination.
More than half a century after the passage of that law, employment discrimination against gays and lesbians is still legal in much of the country, a sign that we are far from God’s kingdom.
Justice Ginsburg this week sang God’s song in the Supreme Court without saying a word. The collar that she wore with her judicial robes the day the case was heard, was handmade, woven silk. Embroidered along the edges was the Hebrew word “tzedek,” which means “Justice.”
That word refers to a verse from scripture: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”
The other voice I heard singing the Lord’s song this week is from the former Episcopal bishop of Alaska, Steven Charleston.
“So who would you vote for if the election were held today?” he wrote. “That’s what someone asked me the other day. Maybe you have been asked it, too. Anyway, here is my answer:
“I will be voting for the poor. I will be voting for the homeless, for the hungry, for the elders who can’t afford their health care.
“I will be voting for the single moms, for the day laborers, and for the kids in school.
“I am voting for the wetlands, the rivers and the sea, the forests, and all the creatures who live there.
“When I go in to check off someone’s name, I will be voting for all of the above. It doesn’t matter if the election is held today or tomorrow. I know who I am supporting.”
Justice Ginsburg and Bishop Charleston are following the instructions God gave to the Israelites in exile so many centuries ago.
They understand why, as people of faith, they must care for those who are not like them, why they – and we – must be concerned about the common good, about the welfare of all God’s people.
Jesus and the God of Israel have commanded us to do so.
And in the welfare of the common good we will find our salvation.