The field at Anathoth
by Isaac S. Villegas
Sept 29, 2013
I haven’t spent much time at the Anathoth Community Garden. I haven’t pulled weeds in those beds or picked tomatoes from the vines, as I know some of you have done. I’ve only been out there for celebrations — for harvest festivals and fundraiser banquets, for birthday parties and anniversaries.
Gardens are about life, signs of life, manifestations of the earth’s life. That’s what I’ve seen at Anathoth. I’ve seen life — conversations and fellowship, guitars and fiddles and singing, kids running and playing. Lots of wild and common life. That’s what gardens are all about: the seasons and rhythms and routines of work and play.
With the Babylonian army surrounding the city, getting ready to capture it, Jeremiah does an ordinary thing, an act that belongs in the world of mundane life, of seasons and routines of work and play, of worldly transactions, of business as usual: he buys a field in his hometown of Anathoth.
The passage we heard from chapter 32 of Jeremiah turns our attention away from the political crisis in Jerusalem, away from rival kings and their battles for power, and towards a business deal in a small village. As the world falls apart, Jeremiah gives us the boring details on how he bought a piece of property:
“I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions…” And he goes on and on.
The city is frantic, people are sick with dread, panicked at the sight of Babylon’s warriors at the gates of Jerusalem, and Jeremiah goes through the tedious legal proceedings to buy some property a few miles outside the city, the field at Anathoth. How could he be so out of touch with reality? His people are talking about the end of the world, the end of God’s covenant with Judah, God’s abandonment of Israel — the people are talking about a last stand to ward off the looming apocalypse, and Jeremiah buys a field, and bores us with the technicalities of property exchange.
The people of Judah — king Zedekiah and all of Jerusalem — thought that Jeremiah was out of touch. He was known as a prophet of doom who predicted the end of Judah, which no one thought imaginable: that Jerusalem would be destroyed, that they would go into exile, that they would have a foreign king. To think such things was to disbelieve in God, to disbelieve in God’s promises, to deny God’s sovereignty.
Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet, already mourning the destruction of Jerusalem before anyone saw the Babylonian armies coming. No one thought the end was coming. No one thought the end was possible, except for Jeremiah, who was weeping and wailing at his vision of the future — a Jerusalem in ruins, house and markets and the temple destroyed, the end of everything.[i]
When I think of Jeremiah — this weeping prophet, this prophet of destruction — I think of Justine, played by Kristen Dunst, in the 2011 film, Melancholia. Everyone in the film dismisses Justine because she’s in a state of hysteria. She’s crazy. She weeps at the dinner table when she takes a bite of her favorite meal, meatloaf, because, for her, the meatloaf now tastes like ash — all she can taste is the ash of a post-apocalyptic world, earth in flames, charred, so she weeps, and no one knows what to do with her. But, at the end, she turns out to be the sane one, because she’s right.
The people of Judah think Jeremiah is crazy, too, for similar reasons. So they lock him up. That’s where we find him at the beginning of the passage. Jeremiah does all of his business transactions while confined in the palace dungeon, locked up in a prison. From his cell, Jeremiah buys the field in Anathoth as a prophetic act — an act of hope, that life will go on, but not in Jerusalem, not with a king from among their own people, but life will go on in places outside Jerusalem, in cities and villages under the dominion of foreigners, under the power of others.
His people couldn’t imagine such a future. Jeremiah’s prophecy was not hopeful, at least not for the people of Jerusalem, not for his king. But, for Jeremiah, it was only hope possible, a sober hope:
“For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” That’s it. That’s the hope. That’s all he gives us.
Jeremiah doesn’t hope for the defeat of his people’s enemies. He doesn’t offer the hope of Israel’s restoration as a political powerhouse. He doesn’t promise the re-creation of Israel as paradise on earth, as a land flowing with milk and honey. That would be nostalgic hope, a desire for a return to the good old days, and Jeremiah has no patience for that kind of hope, because that kind of hope is deceptive, it leads his people to deny the looming reality, to deny the reality that they will be overcome, that they will live in exile — the reality of their defeat.[ii]
Last week I read an old interview with Tupac Shakur, from the 1990s, where he sounds a lot like Jeremiah, at least to me. Tupac, probably the greatest rapper we’ve had, lived in Compton, California, and told the story of life on the underside of the United States, how to go on when you’ve got nothing. “My music is spiritual,” he said, “It’s like Negro spirituals, except for the fact that I’m not saying ‘We Shall Overcome.’ I’m saying that we are overcome.”[iii]
Not we shall overcome, but we are overcome.
That’s Jeremiah as well: no illusion about overcoming, but an honesty about Judah as overcome by Babylon, and for us, an honesty about our lives as overcome by powers we cannot control, our world as overcome by forces we cannot escape.
But, even though we are overcome, Jeremiah offers hope, rooted in an invitation to build places for life to happen, life in spite of it all, life as resistance to the forces of death, life growing out of control, beyond the control of the powers that be — life in prison, life at Wednesday meals on the 15/501 service road, life with coworkers and neighbors, our homes and work sites as spaces for life, where we share life with friends and strangers.
We are people of life because we worship the God of life, the one whose life is overcome by death, but still goes on, and now comes to us as a movement of life — in us, surrounding us, empowering us to go on, even when we are overcome.
I’ll close with Jeremiah’s words, an invitation for us who have been overcome, but go on with hope: “It will be a long time,” he says, “build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat what they produce” (Jer 29:28).
[i] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, Volume 1 (Harper & Row, 1969): “Although Isaiah had insisted that Jerusalem would withstand the onslaught of her enemies, Jeremiah, like Micah, was told that the enemies would overwhelm Jerusalem and all the fortified cities of Judah… Jeremiah’s was a soul in pain, stern with gloom. To his wistful eye the city’s walls seemed to reel. The days that were to come would be dreadful. He called, he urged his people to repent—and he failed. He screamed, wept, moaned—and was left with a terror in his soul” (104-105). “While the Babylonian army was fighting Jerusalem, Jeremiah confronted the king, and declaring it to be the will of God that Jerusalem should fall to the Babylonians, demanded surrender to Babylonia. Such a demand must have outraged both the devout and the zealots of Jerusalem. To surrender the holy city to a pagan conquerer! Jeremiah’s advice was resented. Courageously the people continued to hold out, believing that just as God had delivered Jerusalem from Sennacherib, He would deliver it from Nebuchadnezzar” (136-137).
[ii] Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Volume 2: The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions (Harper & Row, 1965): “This picture of the future is almost disappointingly sober. Jeremiah has nothing to say of any changes in the natural world of the land where God’s chosen people are to dwell; and nothing of any paradise-like fertility… With Jeremiah, the gulf between old and new is far deeper than with any of his predecessors among the prophets” (212).
[iii] Tupac Shakur quoted in Jake Brown, Tupac Shakur — (2Pac in the Studio): The Studio Years 1989-1986 (Colossus Books, 2005), 136.