Jeremiah’s Letter to the Diaspora


Introduction

A community going away from homeland and settling in another place is not a new thing in history. People have always moved as individuals and as communities for various reasons from place to place. There are more than one ways of looking at this transplantation. Some look at it negatively and others positively, some may consider it as a misfortune and others as a possibility.

Israel and its Experiences

Israel at several occasions in its history has experienced this transplantation. It always been a question where does the history of Israel begins, whether with Abraham or with Moses. In both cases the community begins with a setting out to a different geographical location and cultural environment. Even during its life in Palestine, it experienced at least two situations of moving out. In the case of Abraham and Moses the setting out were considered as due to God’s call to come out. God brought Abraham out of the land of Chaldeans (Deut. 26:5) that he may become a great people and a blessing to others. It could be interpreted as a taking out of cocoon that the larva may grow in size and relevance. It was a liberative act so to speak.

In the case of the exodus event it was to bring the people out from under an oppressive regime and to provide them with a better future (Deut. 6:21 ff.). This became one of the central events in the history of Israel as an event that provided the community with independence and identity. Although lot of suffering and crises situations were involved in it, it was also looked at positively. But the other two were not considered so much positively. The first one caused by the Assyrian conquest (2 Kings 17:5 ff.) and the second Babylonian invasion (2 Kings 24). Both of them were looked at as a result of the sin of the people. We do not have so much talk about the first in the Bible. But the second produced a lot of literature and history was considered influenced considerable by it (the first went to oblivion as the Jewish scriptures were written by the Southerners).

Many of the prophets who wrote about exile interpreted it as caused by Yahweh to punish his people for its wrong doings. Jeremiah who worked in Jerusalem also wrote about it in the same line. But once it happened, the prophet wanted the people in exile to take it as a challenge and an opportunity. According to Jeremiah 29:1-24, the prophet sent a letter to the people in exile in Babylon explaining his point.

Historical context

By early 7th C. BC the Assyrian empire started declining. Neo-Babylonians in BC 625 under Nebopolassar liberated themselves from Assyrians. Jeremiah was able to see the shift in the political arena. The prophet was not so much concerned of Zion theology as he came from the tribe of Benjamin in Anathoth (1:1 ff.). But he was deeply concerned of Exodus and Covenant traditions (from other sources we learn that Zion tradition was developed from political ambitions of David. He wanted to strengthen his authority over all the tribes of Israel by using religious faith which controlled all faculties of Israel’s life). Jeremiah’s association with prophet Hosea and his disciples also made him less concerned of place of worship than the deity worshipped and his works in history.

Jeremiah reminds Israel of its first love to Yahweh (2:1-13) which, according to him, the people forgot eventually (2:14-19, 32). The prophet does not threaten people, rather complains in a sober voice. He was happy to see the reforms of Josiah who reestablished genuine Yahweh worship involving all tribes (in 621. 22:11-19). To him Jerusalem was not formidable, .rather it was the relationship with Yahweh that made the city important (7:1-15). He was sure that God was to bring great changes in the international political scene. Judah will be brought under Babylon (27:5 ff.; 37:8, 17; 38:3. etc., and there was no point in depending on Egypt to protect it). The hard-line nationalists in Judah started persecuting Jeremiah (38:4 ff.). What the prophet had predicted did happen in 598/7 and 587. A major part of the population was taken in to Babylon as captives. In 568 Egypt also fell to Nebuchadnezzar. Lot of Judeans had fled to Egypt. One group took Jeremiah along with them forcefully and he died there some time after the second deportation (587). Before he was taken to Egypt the prophet sent a letter to those in Babylon (29:1-23).

The Letter

The letter has two main points, first an advice to be good citizens, and two always trust in God and hope for a re-establishment of the relationship. The second part becomes important since the exile was considered a punishment. But if it was not, then what would important be only the first part (29:5-7). The prophet advised the people to become integral part of the community in Babylon. Of course it was not easy for them. They always thought Jerusalem was formidable and no one can ever destroy it. Now it was pulled down. They thought worship in Jerusalem was established for ever, now the temple was in ruins and the people were in alien land. So they lamented “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4). They looked at being in Diaspora in a totally negative way. But the prophet asked them to look at it as a possibility and challenge. He asked them to engage in the social and economic life of the land. He said, ‘build houses, plant gardens and eat its produce, get married to people of the land and work for the welfare of it” (29:7).

Our Challenge Today.

The challenge for a religious person today is some what similar. It has come to a stage that people do not belong to any particular geographical locality any more permanently. They are always on the move for various reasons. New generations emerge in entirely different socio-cultural context than those of their parents. There are lot of people who consider this as an unavoidable evil due to pressure of survival. So they take so much trouble to keep many of their old customs and practices continued. But it becomes an additional burden for them as many of these may not fit in with the context they lived in. The younger generation born and brought up in the new environment may find many of those old practices, symbols and customs meaningless and irrelevant for them.

Not so much different was the case with those who went in to exile in Babylon as far as their religious life was concerned. When they were asked by the prophet to get married and participate in agricultural and other activities of Babylonian community, he was also asking them to participate in the religious rites associated with them. People particularly those days related their daily life and activities in relation to their faith in the divine. If we examine the common prayer book published by Mar Julius Press, Pampacuda, we can see that even the very insignificant activity such as washing the hand is accompanied by a prayer. Of course these days we do not follow them very strictly. But in ancient communities were welfare in life was interpreted solely in religious terms, they were followed very ardently. Jeremiah did not ask to forget or forsake Yahweh God of Israel. Jeremiah asked them “Pray to (only) Yahweh for the welfare of the land” (29:7). They were only advised to use symbols and mediums of the religious life of the people of the land in which they were put in to worship Yahweh. In simple terms the advice was ‘except for Yahweh every thing need be local’.

This is a valuable message for people in Diaspora these days for good or for not so good reason. Every thing except Christ, need to be local. We Orthodox Christians in Malankara got the good news about God’s salvation in Christ through Saint Thomas one of the apostles of Christ. Later several foreign Church fathers and leaders came to this part of the world. They brought symbols and mediums of worshipping God in Christ. We took some of them and internalized. Until they came the Church predominantly was local in all its forms. But these incluences finally ended up in having most of the symbols and expressions of our religious life those borrowed from out side. Now much of them having got rooted in our system and we are not able to think of having a truly Indian Church. Even stary attempts are suppressed and opposed. While we claim that our system is the best, we also complain that lot of our people, particularly young ones, leave our Church attracted by other systems. This does not open our eyes either. We blame it on others calling it ‘sheep stealing’. We do not ever ask ‘is there some thing wrong with us in presenting this system to our own people? We have to accept that in Kerala we have failed to a great extent in making our faith local, relevant and dynamic. Then our people went in to Diasporas. Some considered it as a blessing, some as some thing essential for existence. But we did not ever read Jeremiah’s passage seriously and tried it for ourselves. We tried to use the inherited symbols and mediums which were though quite familiar to the older generation alien to the situation they were put in. It was like water and oil. Jeremiah asked his readers to involve in the life of the community socially and religiously except for the deity. This is the advice given to every community in Diaspora situation of our times.

The question will be, is it just for Jeremiah’s word this methodology should be adopted? The answer is no. There are two other reasons too. First just as it helped them make Yahweh relevant and living, it will do the same for us. Israel always thought Yahweh can be experienced and worshipped only in Jerusalem. To them, God’s influence for them was only in the territory of Judah. But now they realized that God can be present when they engage in farming, in business, when they get married and in other activities even in a yet unknown and alien territory. Thus they were able to liberated God from their limited understanding. It was indeed a challenge for them. This will exactly be what we will have. Second, Israel was able to expose their faith in God in different and meaningful ways. They realized that animal sacrifice was not the only way of relating to and worshipping Yahweh. They learned hymns and psalms for worship; they realized that ziggurats, institutions and building projects need not be effective tools for keeping people together. They learned that Yahweh is not only the savior God, but also a creator God. They learned all these from the land and culture they were put in. This was a way of enriching their faith in God and making him present and relevant in the context they were living in. We will also be able to achieve this enrichment.

Conclusion

Our people who are put in various socio-cultural contexts try hard to keep all their customs and practices they learned in their place of birth. It is a box they were born to. This box also teaches them a lot about the divine they have to believe in. But they need to come out of it and also liberate God of their limited understanding just as Israel did in Babylon. If we believe and confess that God is the creator of every thing seen and not seen, we also need to realize that there are yet unknown and unseen ways of relating to and worship God we believe in. Every context people are put in can be looked at positively and make it an opportunity to grow and be enriched socially and religiously. This is what Jeremiah was advising the people of Israel in Babylon and that was exactly they slowly started to do. They became very successful people in Babylon as testified by the stories of Nehemiah and Mordechai (in the book of Esther). This is probably the best way to live a religious life in Diaspora at any given time. This is the challenge, how can we be a local religious people even while we keep our faith in God unaltered.

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A Couple of Christmas Thoughts


Mathew 2:9 reads: “… and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was”.

We on a daily basis confront events, phenomenon and happenings all around us. Some of them may be very pleasing to us while others may not be so. Some of them may be very disturbing while others promising, some profitable and some not so. Where do they guide us to? The three wise men who were looking for the fulfillment of promise was guided by a heavenly luminary. Any thing that is in this created universe will have a message to convey to us from its creator and the will always be a message about the birth of Salvation in Jesus, the liberator of the creation. Psalmist said in Psalm 19:1 “Heavens proclaim the glory of God and the firmament the hand work of its creator”. We need to look at the nature God created and history God is guiding to see the message from God. I know that you looked at the events in history of your Church and decided to take a steady step forward just as the three wise men to reach a place of joy and satisfaction. This needs to be continued all through your lives.

Again among all that God created and that conveys a message to others, humans have a special role. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). We need to be the light that guides the world to the salvation in Jesus Christ. You have already shown to the people in your congregation the path to liberation from the bondage of unjust hierarchy in the Church. We need to continue this path also in other areas of our lives. We need to show Christ through our lives. These days the world is going away from the true goal which is Christ like the three wise men went to the king’s palace who happened to be a killer and power crazy ruler. We have to bring people back from road to sin and self-destruction. Let us be luminaries that show the path to Christ and also looking for the message that history and nature gives us. This is the message of Christmas this year.