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. Does that sound familiar? We say a version of it in our Prayers of the People every week: Work and pray for the good of the city where you dwell, for in its peace we shall find our peace. I’ve heard from folks in the past who assume the “city” in question is Madison, and feel a little offended that we’re leaving out Middleton, Cross Plains, Mount Horeb, Sun Prairie, Black Earth, Verona, and so on. But the city mentioned here, in fact, is Babylon.
The prophet Jeremiah was born around the year 626 before the birth of Jesus, in a time of instability and threat for Jerusalem and Judea. God called him as a boy to speak God’s words to the nations, and especially to his own nation and its leaders – bringing them the unpopular news that conquest, death and doom are coming. Sure enough, in the year 587, when Jeremiah is around forty years old, the armies of the empire of Babylon march into Judea, killing and destroying as they come. After a long and terrible siege, they conquer the city, and tear down the great Temple. Most of the people of Jerusalem and Judea are killed or exiled. Jeremiah himself ends up in Egypt, dragged along with some nobles fleeing Babylon’s might.
All that is context for this letter to the exiles, today’s Jeremiah text. You might notice our text skips some verses; that’s just more about when the letter was written and how it was sent. In the verses following our text, Jeremiah speaks for God to say, God’s going to bring you home and restore your nation – but it’s going to be a while. So! Settle in. Build a house! Plant a garden! Make family! Live!
Last week’s Old Testament text from the book of Lamentations gives us a hint about why this message was needed. The book of Lamentations is exactly what it says on the tin – a book of poetry of grief and loss over the Babylonian conquest. Listen to a few poignant verses: “Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place… All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength. The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word; but hear, all you peoples, and behold my suffering; my young women and young men have gone into captivity. In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it is like death. On the day of the anger of the Lord no one escaped or survived; those whom I bore and reared my enemy has destroyed.” (Lamentations 1, selected verses)
Jeremiah is speaking to people traumatized, grieving and angry. And his message, God’s message, is: Choose life. And don’t just survive: Work and pray for Babylon, the capital city of your conquerors. Seek the shalom of Babylon – a wonderful word that combines peace and wellbeing.
Work and pray for the good fo the city where you dwell. Do Jeremiah’s words speak to us? Many of us have had experiences of otherness or not belonging, minor or major, that have something in common with the Israelites’ experience in Babylon. But few of us probably think of ourselves as exiles, people forced to live among strangers, in a place not our own.
Yet our Christian ancestors thought of themselves that way – even when living in their hometowns. Their beliefs and practices set them apart, made them not belong. One metaphor they used was that of citizenship, based on Roman citizenship, a distinctive identity that you would carry with you wherever you went, that set you apart and incurred both privileges and obligations. Paul – who was a Roman citizen – writes in the letter to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (3:20). And the letter to the Ephesians says, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and… members of the household of God.” (2:19) So our forbears experienced their faith as a kind of otherness. As making them resident aliens, citizens of another nation – working and praying for the good of the city where they dwelt, but never forgetting that their true identity and loyalty lay elsewhere.
Then came 1700 years when it was pretty easy to forget. Christianity became the religion of the western world. That marriage of Church, state, and culture that endured so long was called Christendom… and it’s over. I just covered a whole library of historical and sociological literature in two sentences; take my word for it for now, and let me know if you want to read more.
One of the gifts of Christianity after Christendom is that we have more in common now with our ancestors in faith. When we read in early Christian texts about feeling like outsiders, being seen as strange or dangerous or just eccentric and irrational by our cultured neighbors – well, we can relate. (With the added layer that when Christianity does show up in the public square or the halls of power, it’s often not our Christianity.) So, more than many of the generations in between, we may find some encouragement and direction in the lives of the early Christians, and before them, in the lives of the Jewish exiles. That’s why we use this snippet of Jeremiah in our prayers: Work and pray for the good, the shalom, of the city where you dwell.
What did that look like, in practice, for God’s people in exile? It looked like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – young Israelite men, educated, probably of elite backgrounds – who were brought into the court of King Nebuchadnezzar, to become pampered symbols of Babylon’s conquest of Judea. Now, King Nebuchadnezzar had a giant golden statue of himself made, and issued this edict: “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.” But Jews worship only one god. They will not bow down to false idols, things made by human hands that we give power over ourselves. And people noticed that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not bowing down to the golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. So they told the king. And King Nebuchadnezzar in a furious rage had the three young men flung into a fiery furnace, because they would not worship him as a god. But the flames did not hurt them! When they came out again, the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed. Nebuchadnezzar was amazed and issued a new edict: Blessed be the god of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and let everyone honor their god, who has shown such power in saving them from the fire!
Daniel, for his part, earned the esteem of Nebuchadnezzar for his wisdom in interpreting dreams. A few years later, after Nebuchadnezzar was dead, his son Belshazzar held a great feast. And under the influence of wine, Belshazzar had the holy vessels from the Great Temple in Jerusalem, that his father’s armies had stolen, brought out, and they drank wine from them. And suddenly, Belshazzar saw a hand appear and begin to write on the wall – mysterious words he could not read. The King was terrified. He called in all his sorcerers and scholars.
He told them that anyone who could tell him what the writing meant would be dressed in royal purple, with a gold chain around his neck, and be ranked third in the kingdom. But no one could read the writing on the wall. (Yes, this is where that saying comes from.) Then the queen said, Remember that young Judean man who was so good at interpreting your father’s dreams? Perhaps he can help.
So Daniel was summoned. And the king told him, ‘If you can read this writing, you shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around your neck, and rank third in the kingdom.’ But Daniel said, O King, keep your gifts! You have exalted yourself agains the Lord of Heaven, the only true God, by drinking wine from the vessels of God’s holy Temple. You worship gods of silver and gold, wood and stone; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honored. The writing on the wall is a message from the God of Israel, and this is what it says: MENE, MENE, TEKEL PARSIN, which means, God has numbered the days of your kingdom.You have been weighed, and found wanting. Your kingdom will be taken from you and divided. Then Belshazzar gave the command, and Daniel was clothed in purple, and a gold chain put around his neck, and it was decreed that he should rank third in the kingdom. And that very night… King Belshazzar died.
And then there is Esther, a young Jewish woman who lived a few decades later, a descendant of the exiles. When the Judeans were allowed to return to Jerusalem, fifty years after the Exile, not everyone chose to return. Esther’s family was among those who had followed Jeremiah’s advice so well that they stayed in their new homes. But they were still Jews – set apart by their beliefs and practices, and by their neighbors’ suspicions. By an unlikely series of events, Esther ends up married King Ahasuerus, the local ruler. The king and the court don’t know that Esther is a Jew. Meanwhile, an adviser to the king, named Haman, has a grudge against Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, because Haman thinks he’s really important… and Mordecai doesn’t.
So Haman tells the king that these Jews who live in the city – they’re not really just like everybody else. They have different values, a different way of life. They don’t really belong here. Maybe we should throw them out. Maybe we should kill them.
The king says, Sure, do what you want. Issue an edict in my name: On such and such a day, we’ll get rid of the Jews.
Mordecai sends word to Esther: You have to do something! You have to change the King’s mind! It’s the only hope for your people. Perhaps you were raised to this high position for just such a time as this!
Esther is afraid; this isn’t a warm, chummy marriage – she only sees the king when he sends for her. But she summons her courage and invites him to dinner. She chooses her moment and makes her case. She reminds the king that Mordecai, her uncle, once uncovered a plot to assassinate him! The Jews are good citizens, loyal and helpful! She asks him to spare her life, and the lives of all her people. The king reverses his edict, instead protecting the Jews – and Haman is executed.
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens; work for the welfare of the place where you find yourself… but never forget who, and whose, you are; for you are still God’s people, even in exile. For the three young men, that meant refusing to bow down to the golden idols, those false and empty gods. For Daniel, it meant taking the opportunities that came his way – being honored and esteemed by those in power, but also being ready to tell them the truth, no matter what the cost. For Esther, it meant being bold about using her position and voice, trusting that God had prepared her for such a time as this.
Daniel and Esther and the others were God’s gift to the places where they lived. The resident alien, the outsider, the person pushed to the margins, a step or two outside of mainstream culture, our accepted norms and shared assumptions –
Those people often see things a little more clearly. Like the Samaritan in today’s Gospel story. We’ve invited to assume the other nine lepers were Jews. People who had skin diseases were ostracized, cut off from normal social and religious life. It makes sense that misfits from different social backgrounds would hang out together – we’ve all seen those movies. But then the club breaks up: the nine do what Jesus, and their religion, tell them to do – if your leprosy goes away, naturally or miraculously, you’re supposed to go to the priest to be cleared to resume normal life. What they do makes perfect sense to them. But for the Samaritan, that’s not his faith, not his practice. That’s WHY he is the one who says, Heck with the priests; that guy back there – he’s the one who cleansed me! I need to go back and thank him!
Work and pray for the shalom of the city where you dwell.
I think there’s real grace in this invitation to be in the world, but not entirely of it. To be present and engaged, while remembering our true loyalties. Seek the welfare of the city where you dwell, be it Madison, Middleton, Fitchburg, Mount Horeb, and so on… but remember that you just live there. Our citizenship is in the Body of Christ – an idea that may be a comfort some days, a challenge on others! The values and orientations and practices that we carry inside us may put us at odds – at times SHOULD put us at odds – with the world around us, in expected and unexpected ways.
May we inherit Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s clarity about what’s worthy of our loyalty. May we inherit Daniel’s readiness to speak the unpopular truth. May we inherit Esther’s courage in using whatever measure of privilege, status and connection we may have to speak up for those demonized and in danger. May we work and pray for the good of the city where we dwell… for in its peace we shall find our peace. Amen.