“What Is Your Apple Tree?”
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 and 2Cor. 4:7-12
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
The word that came to Jeremiah from theLord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar.2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah,3 where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him…
6 Jeremiah said, “The word of theLordcame to me:7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’”
8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of theLord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.”
Then I knew that this was the word of theLord. 9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out the silver to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the silver on scales. 11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase containing the terms and conditions and the open copy, 12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” (Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 NRSV)
7 But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. 8 We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. 9 We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.
10 We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies.11 We who are alive are always being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies that are dying. 12 So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (2Corinthians 4:7-12 CEB)
As the Babylonian king, Nebuchadrezzar, surrounds Jerusalem for an imminent attack, the prophet Jeremiah languishes in jail. His crime: Declaring that Babylon’s presence is God’s doing. (Jeremiah 32:3b-5) And Zedekiah, the king of Israel, condemns the prophet as a heretic and a traitor.
With all the chaos around him, and even while stuck in his prison-within-a-prison, Jeremiah carpes the diem and does something that most people would consider only during times of confidence and security.
We learn that Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel, is in danger of losing a field at Anathoth, just north of Jerusalem. He asks his prophet cousin to exercise his right of redemption and purchase the property in order to keep it in the family. Because Jerusalem and the surrounding territory, will soon belong to King Nebuchadrezzar, the purchase appears to be a pointless waste of money. More often than not, though, faith reveals itself that way—with a deep breath and a long-suffering nonetheless. For Jeremiah, that means purchasing a piece of land in a doomed country while he’s incarcerated. At the end of the reading, Jeremiah reveals his motives. “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
Jeremiah’s questionable action becomes a public declaration that God has not abandoned Israel. Whatever may happen in the near future, the long view always belongs to God. And God can be trusted, even when all evidence points toward broken promises and a bleak future.
Biblical scholar Stephen Reid says that land transactions in scripture are never “neutral.” They’re always freighted with spiritual baggage.1 I hear in that an affirmation of the sacredness of the land itself. More than some commodity, the land represented the promises of God, the presence of God, even the body of God. So, real estate deals always included some sense that the people were dealing with deep holiness, not just dirt and deeds. They were trafficking in the substance of God. Because the earth creates us, births us, sustains us, and buries us, it’s not gossamer piety to say that land never really belongs to any of us. Rather, we belong to the land; and in belonging to the land, we belong to God.
Another thing Dr. Reid says about Jeremiah’s purchase is that it was a very public and collaborative effort. It involved the initiative of Hanamel, the help of Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, and “all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard” to serve as witnesses.2 The effort really did “take a village.”
This story becomes a theological gumbo. First, the context is one of disorder and anxiety. God’s Holy City is about to experience another defeat. Second, the land itself is a holy gift, something to be stewarded rather than conquered and exploited. Finally, the community, like the land, is both a context for and an agent of God’s revelation. And Jeremiah, seasoning his public act in prophetic speech, makes the purchase a visible, tangible, and memorable symbolic act that reveals the nature of true faith.
For Jeremiah to buy his cousin’s land under the worst possible circumstances declares that even when all appears lost, acting on God’s nonetheless moves mountains and creates futures.
There’s a quotation that is variously attributed to the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther, to the 19th-century French financier and philanthropist Stephen Girard, and to the 20th-century Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Regardless of the statement’s origin, it’s a prophetic utterance worthy of Jeremiah. If I knew that the world would end tomorrow, goes the saying, I would still plant my apple tree.
Maybe this is too much honesty, but I’m trying to figure out exactly what my “apple tree” is. What’s my field at Anathoth? What can I do in the midst of a 21st-century humankind that seems determined to destroy itself and the land?
I feel like I attend meetings more than I do anything else, and does that really matter? And for all those meetings, is this congregation better off than it was when I came here twelve years ago?
I spend 15 to 20 hours on sermons each week and offer them to the same 80-90 people. In a world of 7.8 billion human beings, does my preaching really matter, or am I just addicted to your attention and the sound of my own voice?
And what’s the future of the church? I recently learned that Columbia Seminary, my alma mater, is now telling its shrinking classes of students that fewer and fewer graduates will actually serve churches. Most will have to do ministry in very different ways in contexts that are very different from the local church because the Church is losing both members and relevance. And it seems to me that if congregations and denominations continue to hold onto an institutional mentality, a mentality of existing for their own sake, a mentality which requires deference to wealth, national identities, and military power, their buildings will become museums, concert halls, and restaurants.
The institutional church has been fond of saying that Jesus “paid the price” for our sins, that he “bought” our redemption. And when we flesh out that theology, we meet a human-imaged god who gets so deeply offended that he cannot lovehumankind again except by getting even, by seeing us suffer, or by seeing someone suffer in our place. In that scenario, redemption is “bought” by blood to “satisfy” an angry god. That fearsome message has animated the Church for generations, and our fear of hell made us willing to sanction and participate in the injustices and the violence of nations that strive to own and control both land and people. That blood-soaked theology is losing ground; and I have to consider the loss a gift of God’s grace—even if it sounds like heresy or treason to say so.
If we’re going to keep using economic metaphors, I think Jeremiah’s redemption of Hanamel’s field provides a much better image. The prophet’s purchase declares that something as holy and beloved as “the family farm” is an irrevocable heirloom, even when it will, inevitably, even if temporarily, become the property of a foreign king.
Through God’s Incarnation in a particular human being, God declares that all humankind is a field of inestimable worth. Humankind is the land worth keeping in the family, even when people of “faith” effectively place God in service to Babylon’s wealth and war machines.
That is our message: We, all of us—not just Jewish or Christian individuals, but all humankind—are God’s beloved field. And if we have been “purchased,” it’s not because we were so evil that God couldn’t love us again until someone paid a ransom or spilled blood. It’s because we are loved by God who is love. (1John 4:8) We are Jeremiah’s earthenware jar, and as he said in the previous chapter, God has written the deed “on our hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
God claims the right of redemption on all that God has created. That’s why we baptize infants who have no say in the matter. Our public, collaborative, prophetic declaration of God’s grace upon this particular child mirrors God’s proactive grace upon all humankind and upon all Creation in the particular person of Jesus. There is not one person or plot of ground that lies beyond the realm of God’s belovedness.
If that gracious message is the ultimate and unambiguous purpose behind every meeting, every sermon, every hymn and anthem, every visit, then at the end of the day, maybe I can say, Yes, this is my apple tree.
1Stephen Breck Reid, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010, p. 100.