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24 May. Jeremiah chapters 34-37
The book of Jeremiah, as I have noted before, is confusing because it is not in chronological order. For instance chapter 37 records how Zedekiah was installed as a puppet ruler of Judah by the Babylonians, but earlier, chapter 34 opens with Zedekiah already in post. In it, this turncoat king does something extraordinary: he applies one of God’s commandments which the Jewish people had ignored for centuries, that they must not keep any of their fellow men or women as slaves – or at least not for longer than 6 years and only if the servant in question had voluntarily sold themselves into slavery (presumably to pay off a debt).
But no sooner had the slave-owners complied with the law than they tried to recapture the freed slaves. The law of God meant so little to them that even when enforced by the authorities, they tried their best to get round it for their own advantage. God’s response was to ironically tell them that for denying others their freedom, they themselves would be ‘free’ from God’s protection and would be killed. So often people see religious rules as purely restrictive when in fact they represent a form of protection: to follow God’s way is to receive his protection against falling into the sort of sin that rebounds on oneself. The more people in a society who live by faith, the healthier that society will be. And the more who ignore God’s laws, the worse it will be for everyone. It’s a lesson that is forgotten in each generation and has to be re-taught and re-learnt, often the hard way.
In chapter 35 the Recabites are held up as an example. They seem to have been an ascetic tribe within Israel, continuing to live a nomadic and austere lifestyle even when the rest of the people had been living the ‘good life’. They might be compared to Quakers or Amish, for example, or the monastic orders of the Middle Ages. Although to others their self-denial might have seemed pointless, in fact their faithfulness to God was contrasted with the self-seeking of the majority. We need such people in our society today. Where can they be found? There are some small Christian communities who live in this counter-cultural way, but if anything they are to be found more in secular movements and communities where sustainability of food, energy and the environment are more likely to be the aim rather than obedience to God. But why not both? Why are more Christians (or people of other faiths) not living this way? It’s a challenge and one I know I must face myself.
In chapters 36-37 (going back to the previous reign of Jehoiakim), the king calls for the scroll that Jeremiah has had written of all his prophecies to date, and because he will not accept their message he burns it. Burning sacred writings is always a provocative act, yet Jeremiah was a man of peace, and rather than retaliate himself he merely emphasised that the king was provoking God to wrath, and had a second copy of the scroll made for posterity, while he himself was put in prison. It is not easy to walk the way of non-aggression in the face of such opposition. Few people manage it; Jeremiah and Jesus were among those who did.