Jeremiah 32: 1-2, 6-15 Why Buy a Field? By Rev. June Fothergill
Ok, I want to start with a joke that has nothing to do with the topic for today, only because it tickles me. I hope you will enjoy it too. A customer of Green’s Gourmet Grocery marveled at the proprietor’s quick wit and intelligence. “ Tell me, Green what makes you so smart?”
“ I wouldn’t share my secret with just anyone,” Green replied, lowering his voice, “ but since you’re a good faithful customer, I’ll tell you. Fish heads. You eat enough of them you’ll be positively brilliant.”
“ You sell them here?” the customer asked
“ Only $4 a piece.” Green answered.
The customer buys three. A week later he’s back in the store complaining that the fish heads were disgusting and he isn’t any smarter. “ You didn’t eat enough,” says Green. The customer goes home with 20 more fish heads. Two weeks later, he’s back and this time he’s really angry.
“ Hey Green,” he says,” You’re selling me fish heads for $4 apiece when I can buy a whole fish for $2. You’re ripping me off!”
“ You see,” says Green, “ You’re smarter all ready.”
I laugh because that customer could have been me! Laughter and tears are both essential to our emotional and physical health! I think that Jeremiah knew that. He was a master the symbolic action. He lived in a time of great turmoil and suffering for his people and sometimes God’s word seemed to him like fire in his bones. Yet he also could have words and actions of hope for a better future.
What was happening in Jeremiah’s day? Jeremiah had told the King that he should surrender to the Babylon forces which were at the gate. For this treasonous word, he was confined to the court under guard. He describes the situation in a prayer to God, ( 32: 24)” See the siege ramps have been cast up against the city to take it and the city faced with sword, famine and pestilence has been given into the hands of the Chaldeans who are fighting against it.”
The siege of the Babylonian forces had taken a toll. The countryside was already devastated: crops burned, villages looted, famine and disease killing the young and the old. Lamentations describes the horror of the city under siege, “All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength. “ ( Lam 1: 11a) Everything is falling apart all around them! And there is nothing Jeremiah can do to stop it!
Yet, in the midst of this turmoil, God says to Jeremiah that his cousin will come to see him offer him the right to buy a field at Anathoth, Jeremiah’s hometown, for “ the right or redemption by purchase is yours.” When the cousin shows up Jeremiah knows this is God’s hand at work , so he buys the field and not only does he buy it he makes a big show of doing so with many witnesses. Later on in a prayer, Jeremiah admits that this action of his made no sense! Babylon is conquering the land, when will Jeremiah have a chance to use that field?
God responds that the calamity that is happening to the people is because they turned away from relationship with God and God’s ways. Yet, God will not forget the covenant God has with the people and one day everything will be restored and the people will be in right relationship with God once again. “Then houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” ( jer 32:15)
Buying the field is a sign of this coming restoration. It is not said explicitly but it is a fitting sign because this kind of redemption of the land of one’s ancestors was the original way the land was to be distributed and tended. When Israel chose to have kings, they moved toward a more hierarchical system in which the kings sought to control all the land and what it produced like the kings around them did. The story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard in Kings is an example of this imperial approach. The prophets of Israel spoke out about this change and the injustices against the poor that the new system fostered. People not only worshipped other gods, they forgot the ways of justice and caring that God had given them.
As the 8th century prophet Amos had cried out over a century before, “ … they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way.” ( Amos 2: 6-7 portions) and “ They do not do what is right , says the Lord, those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.” ( 3:10) Rather Amos told the kings of his day, “ let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” ( 5: 24)
But the courts and kings did not listen to the prophets like Amos and others, some of them did some small reforms but no one was willing to turn to more just ways that would limit their powers and wealth. Instead they sought out alliances with the other larger empires around them to shore up their power. This Jeremiah told the kings of his day will not work anymore. You and your way of trying to have a little empire are going to be destroyed by Babylon ( or the Chaldeans) . The prophets saw this destruction as God finally having had enough.
So, Jeremiah’s action in redeeming a field that was part of his ancestral land – he had right of redemption- points to the alternative more just way of land distribution in which each family and tribe had land for its welfare, rather than all the land being controlled by the kingship. The restoration God promises is not of another empire but of a return to a more just and faithful system and economy. Jeremiah did this action with as many witnesses as possible, there in the belly of the beast , there trapped in the doomed court, his action speaks boldly of another way, a more hopeful, just and righteous way. He gives the people who will listen and see a new, hopeful vision in the midst of calamity.
What does Jeremiah’s symbolic action mean for us today?
1. Jeremiah’s field reminds us that God cares about how we treat the earth and each other. God is not happy with exploitation of persons or the land. God ‘s word to the kings of Israel was that their unjust systems were not eternal , they could and would be destroyed. Even the great Assyrian empire that had made the Northern kingdom a vassel did not last, soon Babylon took over, and we know from history that soon the Persians would take over from Babylon and then the Greek and then the Romans and then the Ottomans and then European powers, etc, etc. No system of exploitation and greed, no matter how powerful it may seem is forever.
God continues in each generation to give us signs and symbols, opportunities for change to more just and righteous ways- God’s ways. This word that there is an alternative to injustice, to empire and its exploitation of others run through the Biblical texts like Amos’s ever flowing stream! And it always invites us to look carefully at how we treat the land and the poor of the world. How we care for the vulnerable and the orphans and how our worship and our actions align.
I notice that we live in a time of difficult transitions from an oil based economy to a more sustainable one, from a system based upon the discrimination of persons based upon racial differences toward a more just system where diversity of gifts and backgrounds are viewed as assets. I notice that we have folks who work and have other income but can still not find affordable housing. I notice that our economy still mostly benefits those who already have wealth. I notice that we are still experiencing the trauma of violence and wars: We are still sending out young people to fight wars and we experience violence at home as well. I read recently the report put together by the Women’s Foundation of Oregon that an estimated 1 million Oregon women, just over half the state’s female population have experienced some form of sexual or domestic violence, one of the highest rates in the country. ( These numbers are from CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2011)
I notice that because of all these factors and others, there are many people who experience trauma. Just like in Jeremiah’s day there is need for acts of hope. Jeremiah’s symbolic action of buying a field gave the people hope that a way of justice and the care of the earth is possible. It is what God will bring. So too I look around for similar symbols of hope for our day and age when we also have a system of more and more power and wealth at the top and more and more struggles for those at the bottom. Where are the signs of hope of an alternative way?
One sign is that some of the folks who have much wealth are finding ways to share it. The Gates Foundation’s work to fight diseases like malaria is a start. I am grateful for such acts of generosity and the promise of more. Yet what gives me the most hope is the work happening on the grass roots around the world and here in our community.
We are building up grassroots networks of support: farmer’s markets, CSA’s, rest stops and opportunity villages for unhoused people, the interest in the women’s shelter and our meals. A neighbor might complain but the same day two parents of A3 students ask how they can help with our meals program. To open a Women’ s Shelter seems to mean a huge amount of money to raise, but so far our income is greater than our expenses and community people I’ve never met before are stepping up to help.
This past week I experience another act of hope. The local Native American Center at the school district sponsored a gathering for those interested in presenting to the Springfield City Council the idea of an Indigenous People’s Day to replace Columbus. The center fed us a spaghetti dinner and opportunities for community building. Then we went to the City Council meeting. I was very impressed with the talks the youth had prepared. They had done their research! Then when they didn’t all get to share because the mayor’s time constraints, they went outside and shared the rest of their testimony on video. They lived their hope and gave hope to me.
When we are willing to see, God is giving us signs of hope for God’s ways of love and justice all around us.
Yet, when times of trouble hit, when trauma affects our lives what gives us hope, what helps us through to rediscover our lives? For Jeremiah it was listening to God in his life and being willing to buy that field. Can we listen and do the same for one another? When we see someone going through a traumatic time can we be there beside them as a sign of hope? When we go through a traumatic time can we accept the help of others, can we listen to God’s call to acts of hope?
At the workshop about people of faith working together around the issues of homelessness in our community, I took the class about trauma healing as an act of social justice. The presenter told us that she believes that trauma can be healed. What matters most is whether the person who experiences the trauma finds the support and help they need to heal. And what do they need most? Someone to truly listen with compassion. To be the one who buys that field for them, who stands with them as support for healing and hope. Being with someone with compassion and heartfelt listening is something most of us here in this room can do or can learn to do. We can choose to listen to God and to buy the field, to invest in God’s way, to listen to God’s nudge to acts of courage and hope, compassionate listening and accompaniment in time of trauma and trouble. Even Dennis the Menace can show us the way. I have an old cartoon of Dennis being comforted by his mother with tears in his eyes. He’s saying, “ I’m okay. I just felt so bad for Joey that I helped him cry.”
The other day I did a very small act. I gave a plastic bag to one of the women who had come to our meal and needed some way to carry the clothes she had chosen. When I gave her the bag she surprised me with her gratitude, “Oh you’re the best pastor ever.” For a plastic bag! For a small act of caring in response to her need. Maybe it’s just about paying attention to the big and small ways we can treat each other with respect and caring, with attentive listening and good humor. Opportunities for engaging in symbolic acts of hope abound.
If you can’t think of one right now, I invite you to just stay open to listening to God’s nudges on your heart, to the needs of those around you and you will discover them!