Jeremiah buys a field

by Mark Safstrom

Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-15; Psalm 91; Luke 16:19-31; 1 Timothy 6:6-19

We have in our texts for today three stories. A symbolic act by a Hebrew prophet who buys a field, despite an impending invasion by a foreign empire. A parable of Christ about a rich man, now deceased, who regrets actions he didn’t take during his life to help a beggar, and thereby gain eternal life in heaven. Finally we are given advice from an epistle about avoiding the pitfalls of the “love of money” and instead seeking contentment with the “life that really is life.”

Somewhere in the intersection of these ancient stories we are to find our own story today, here and now. Where do we find security, if it is to be found at all? How do we make plans for a future which we cannot see, or only partially can see? Jeremiah’s preaching, as with the Hebrew prophets in general, places questions of trust into the center of his audience’s attention. Who are you going to trust? And how will that trust shape your decisions and actions in this life?

We don’t have to go all the way back to the time of the Prophet Jeremiah in the 6th century BC to imagine a story of a smaller nation dealing with an invasion by a larger neighboring empire, or of how such an invasion can devolve into a war of attrition, acts of terror, blockades of shipping, interruptions to economy, education, culture, and social life. Out here in the farmland surrounding this little chapel, can we imagine ourselves in the wheat fields or sunflower fields of Ukraine?

Much of Ukraine’s agriculture is based on winter wheat and barley, which is sown in the fall and harvested the following summer. Thus, the planting of this year’s crop began before the invasion, and nevertheless the crop still needed to be pulled in this summer. As these farmers have reaped their harvests they have faced the same dangers as the soldiers. Thousands of acres of ripened wheat have caught fire and burned. Fields have been left with craters that the farmers have had to drive around. Artillery and mines have killed tractor drivers working in the fields.

One farmer in southern Ukraine, Serhiy Sokol, who grows wheat, barley, and sunflowers, described for reporters that he and his farmhands had to pluck dozens of aluminum rocket tubes from the fields just to be able to bring in their crop. One of his neighbors drove his combine harvester over a mine, exploding the tire. Miraculously the driver was spared.

“Thank God nobody was hurt,” Sokol explained, with a shrug.

Another report included the story of Mykhailo Liubchenko, a farmer of wheat and sunflowers, who paid off Russian soldiers with homemade vodka so they wouldn’t burn his fields or steal his equipment. Liubchencko explained that, being “completely drunk” they fortunately didn’t steal anything, and the next day were driven back by the Ukrainian forces.

As the world grain market is dependent on Ukraine, these farmers are making day to day, life and death, decisions based on their

own survival and livelihood, to be sure. But this has also become an existential question for those countries dependent on this food. These farmers’ work is essential in staving off famine in the developing world. This has made clear just how food resources relate to justice and equity in a globalized economy, and certainly shifts the perspective on the question of “Who is my neighbor?”

As we imagine the people of Judah facing the Chaldean invasion back in the 6th century BC, can we picture them still trying to go about their business, to bring in their crops, amidst near total devastation?

Jeremiah’s persona isn’t quite the same as those motivational radio messages of Churchill to Londoners during the blitz. It’s a completely different tone. Jeremiah tells the people they have brought this devastation on themselves, by their idolatry, their empty and self-serving worship, and their apathy toward social injustice. But then Jeremiah goes and buys that field in Anathoth, as a prophetic sign that there will indeed be a future restoration for God’s people. God is trustworthy, they will be redeemed. Is this Jeremiah’s version of “Keep calm and carry on”?

The basic question of the Hebrew prophets is “who will you trust?” Will you, people of Israel, place your trust in monarchy, in military might, in foreign alliances? Or will your trust be in the God of Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, Rachel and Jacob?

The vivid language of Jeremiah throughout the book is swirling with imagery portraying the impending disaster for Judah. The people are headed for deportation and exile in Babylon. At the outset Jeremiah describes this as a “boiling pot, tilted away from the north” that will send scalding destruction upon the land. Elsewhere, the danger is portrayed as a lion on the prowl, or as chariots descending like a whirlwind on Judah.

The reason for this is that Judah has turned away from God, and placed their trust in idols. The prophet compares these idols to “cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” Jeremiah links their improper worship to their complicity in social injustice, of the abuse and mistreatment of the stranger in the land, the orphan, and the widow, which is at the heart of the justice and judgment preached by all the prophets.

The invading Chaldeans make an early attack on Jerusalem, but then briefly withdraw to engage with the Egyptians. Jeremiah warns the people not to be fooled into thinking that this is a true or lasting peace. This is not peace, he says, “The Chaldeans shall return and fight against this city; they shall take it and burn it with fire” (37:9). As he speaks of the invaders burning the fields, we might wonder, will this include the field that Jeremiah himself has just bought? The one in Anathoth? After all, it lies north of Jerusalem, close to the border with the northern kingdom, and the invaders will surely pass through there, will they not? The field that Jeremiah has bought is as vulnerable as any field to being burned.

Jeremiah’s action in buying that field demonstrates his own defiant trust. Despite appearances to the contrary, God is trustworthy. There will be a future restoration and that field will again be brought into productive use. Things will again be bought and sold in this land.

Psalm 91 has been one of my favorite psalms. It speaks of a defiant hope in God in the face of threats of all kinds. “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble; I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them and show them my salvation” (vv. 14-16). At the same time, we know from scripture and from lived experience that God sends rain on the just as well as the unjust. Plenty of righteous people we know suffer, while wicked people prosper. Placing trust in God, as I’ve experienced it and maybe you too, does not guarantee a life without anxiety and hardship. This trust and these promises must then be deeper than the material world, even though they are promises about material things, about security.

One explanation from the field of psychology attributes the feeling of security as being based in people having their basic needs met. This is illustrated with a classic tool from psychology, Maslow’s hierarchy. This familiar image is of a pyramid, in which the needs on the bottom are a prerequisite for those at the top. From the bottom of the hierarchy moving upwards, the needs are first physiological (food and clothing), then safety (job security), then love and belonging (friendship), then esteem, and self-actualization. The premise is that needs that are lower in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up.

Is the Prophet Jeremiah suggesting to us that all we need to do is trust in God? What would he make of this pyramid? Furthermore, how about our epistle lesson? Is St. Paul suggesting that Maslow’s pyramid is actually upside down?

I confess I don’t know how exactly to engage with Jeremiah on this question. A prophet speaks with too much hyperbole, I think. But Paul does seem to challenge the assumption that material security is a prerequisite for self-esteem and self-actualization. What a bold claim this is in that light!

Like the Psalmist, Paul asserts that in the midst of it all, God is trustworthy, and God loves, esteems, and elevates each person who trusts in God. And then of course, even Jeremiah speaks with equally bright language about God’s promises, in chapter 29: “For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.”

Yes, existence is dependent on having basic needs met, none of these authors seem to deny that. Christ himself commands that his followers attend to the lower needs of food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, care for the sick, clothing for the naked alongside the higher needs of welcome for the stranger and visitation of those in prison. The holistic gospel of Christ demands attention to all of people’s physical, spiritual, and intellectual needs, all at once and in no specific linear order. Christ feeds, heals, and touches at the same time as he teaches and gathers into a community. All of this is interwoven in his ministry.

For Paul and Jeremiah alike, it is the obsession with security and with self-actualization that leads people astray. The life of faith is one of finding a way to hold fast to the most important things and keep those central while we attend to our daily duties and obligations to provide for the material well being of our neighbors and ourselves. This is not a subjugation of the body to the spirit, or a renunciation, but a deliberate both/and. Christ was raised in body and spirit…and we are promised that we shall be too.

Today in considering how we might meet the needs of our neighbors, we might feel a similar sense of urgency in hearing the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. After death, the rich man is overcome with regret for not doing what he ought to have done when he could have done it. Asking for a chance to go back and warn his relatives to avoid his mistakes, the voice of Abraham replies, coolly and disturbingly: “They have Moses and the Prophets; they should listen to them.” Good grief, what a devastating reply!

Undeterred in his torment, the rich man asks again for someone to warn his relatives. Abraham is unflinching, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The allusion to Christ’s own death and resurrection anticipates that even this miracle would not be enough evidence to have persuaded this man to place his trust fully in God and not in his riches.

Beyond belief and trust, the follower of Christ is called to a selflessness that is deliberate and purposeful. Our selflessness should have a purpose, and our purposes should be in conformity with the will of God, and God’s pathos for justice and restoration. It is directly related to the building of relationships, community, and reconciliation in society.

The unjust state of affairs in the world is our own fault. Rich nations pollute and poor nations reap the consequences. The felt need of stability on the part of great nations comes at the cost of the instability of small ones. There would be no Lazarus suffering at the doorstep of the rich man if we heeded the warning of Christ’s parable. There would be no neglected orphans, swindled widows, and abused strangers in the land if we heeded the warnings of Jeremiah or I Timothy.

Christ’s reply in the parable is so devastating because we know it is true. The people had the prophets with them for centuries, and that was never enough. Why would another sign, even the resurrection from the dead, be enough to persuade them now. Why would it be enough even to persuade us?

These texts call us to stewardship of our resources and relationships, and call us to seek benevolence and justice for our neighbors. Though it would be easy to read the prophetic preaching of Jeremiah or the parable of Christ and leave dispirited or fearful, that would be to miss the point entirely. These are words of assurance that there is time for trust in God now, there is work to be done now.

Among the stories of those farmers in Ukraine have also been some inspiring responses from farmers in other parts of the world. Farmers in stable countries have seen the prices for some of their crops shoot up as a result of the shortages and blockades. One farmer, Don Hutchens, the director of the Nebraska Corn Board, explained how the Ukraine crisis has created an ethical dilemma for farmers elsewhere. Hutchens has been traveling around the country and world advocating that farmers might consider donating some of their profits from this years’ harvest to address these inequalities.

While Nebraska farmers have faced weather challenges and higher prices on fertilizer and fuel, overall many have been able to take advantage of the significant price increases on their crops. Hutchens explains, “I’m feeling guilty about the profit [I’m] making.” “In agriculture, you’re competing with your neighbor for the same marketplace…for a piece of ground that might come up for sale.” “But at the same time, we’re always supportive of each other.” Hutchens’ sense of calling is in contrast to the inherently competitive nature of business.

There is no one way to respond to this crisis, and to friends who ask, Hutchens suggests donating through their church, to refugee aid organizations, or donating time. His hope is that Nebraska farmers will see their Ukrainian counterparts as neighbors, even though they’re normally competitors. The farmers of today, who persist against the odds in bringing in their crops in the midst of a war zone, and those who find meaningful ways to share their harvest, I think are making prophetic statements on par with Jeremiah’s purchase of that field.

There are fields to be bought now, even though we can’t fully understand what will become of them. We sow our fields without knowing who will reap them or how. Yet in looking after the security of our neighbor we can establish a good foundation for the future and find the life that really is life.

This is adapted from a sermon preached at the Jenny Lind Chapel in Andover, Illinois.