"THUS SAYS THE LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. ... For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.”
Beware of pastoral letters sent by prophets. They can pack a punch. Says this one, what do you want first? The good news or bad? And from where you sit, can you tell the difference?
It’s always tempting to read without context, or to quickly presume our own. In which case this might yield a bumper sticker for urban ministry: Seek the Welfare of the City. Or some universal and individual dictum of God’s love.
But time and place are crucial to interpretation. This one, from the prophet Jeremiah, was penned in the reign of King Zedekiah, between the first Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. and the final destruction of Jerusalem and temple in 587, with a second deportation. It is a letter sent to the exiles by way of the king’s official couriers. The location of the letter is betwixt and between. Written in Jerusalem, read in Babylon. For that matter, kind of like our situation.
So, from where do we read? Equally crucial to know. William Stringfellow, in his An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, put it like this:
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