By David Zahl
It’s a very strange reading we’ve just heard — if you were following along, and your eyes didn’t just roll back in your head. It is a tough one, anytime that phrase “terms and conditions” comes up. I don’t know about you, but I just sort of gloss over or I click through. Whether I’m renting a car, or updating my phone, or buying a plane ticket — and if you’re like me, maybe you just sort of say a quick prayer that whatever is in those terms and conditions isn’t going to get you too bad, because I never read them.
The only time I think I’ve ever read terms and conditions was when we bought a house. So yeah, terms and conditions — not exciting stuff. Then there’s that wonderful phrase, “open copy.” And then “deed of purchase.” We have just heard the story of an Old Testament real-estate closing. That is what goes on, and if you’ve ever been to a real estate closing, they’re not exciting affairs. There’s not much going on. Real estate is something people talked about, but this passage is kind of like listening to paint dry. What is happening? Why talk about this very odd episode? Why was it assigned by the lectionary? Well, I think there’s something we can get out of it. The Bible is strange that way.
Let me explain what’s going on. It’s the 6th century B.C., and the kingdom of Judah — which is sort of southern Israel today, and contains Jerusalem — is under attack by the Babylonians. We’re on the eve of the Babylonian exile, which is one of the great traumas to the Jewish people. It’s an awful thing that happens. But that hasn’t happened yet.
The city of Jerusalem is being besieged. You can hear the army outside, like I can hear fraternity parties going on from my house, but it’s more serious, clearly. Jeremiah the prophet, known as the prophet of doom, is not a lighthearted individual. He’s not the sort of person you’d want to have over for dinner. He was always saying the wrong thing and getting in trouble, and this is why perhaps the king has him imprisoned and under house arrest. The last thing we need is him out there stirring up more trouble. The king puts him in prison, but he keeps him in Judah because he’s their prophet.
If you are a student of art history, one of Rembrandt’s greatest masterpieces is Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem. It’s Jeremiah as an old man, and he is reposed on what looks like the side of a cave. And in the distance, you can see fires and explosions, and you can see the army outside the gates. Yet here you have Jeremiah, his eyes closed, his head against his hand, and he’s sort of contemplative, but the scene is full of pathos and tragedy. This is not what anyone wanted to happen.
With this scene, this very dramatic, momentous occasion, we have what’s almost a comedic episode. His cousin Hanamel comes to Jeremiah and says, “Hey, Jeremiah, I’ve got a real-estate investment you might be interested in.” Maybe you have someone in your family who is always trying to get you to invest in something, like a timeshare.
Hanamel says, “Hey, you have the first right of refusal on this field. It’s close to Jerusalem. I think it’s important that right now you buy this land.”
And the smart answer would be, “No way. Get out of here. Get lost, Hanamel. Go bother the other cousins. All this land is going to belong to the Babylonians on, like, Monday. I would be throwing my cash away.”
It’s like buying land where the government is planning to build a freeway or something. It’s a terrible idea. And yet here we have the voice of God speaking to Jeremiah, saying, “Go for it. Invest. Go all in.” And Jeremiah doesn’t haggle. He doesn’t even try to get a deal based on the plummeting value of the land that no one would have access to anyway. Instead, he makes a public display of paying a high price for this land; 17 shekels of silver was a lot. He gathers people together, and there’s a public signing and a sealing and there are witnesses. He wants everyone to watch him make this terrible investment.
Let’s recap. The world is ending. Jerusalem is being destroyed, and the Jews are going into exile for a long time, and God gets Jeremiah in that moment to make a bold investment in the future. He doesn’t just do it willy-nilly. It’s linked to a promise, as these things often are in the Bible. The promise is this: “For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” You see, Jeremiah, for whatever reason, trusts the promise of God over what he sees around him. And the result again is what looks like a bad idea.
Let’s get out of the 6th century B.C. and ask about today. There’s a sense of doom out there, and whether it’s related to the environment, the government, or the economy, people are feeling the impending doom. In The New York Times, Ross Douthat wrote an article, “The Age of American Despair,” in which he talked about deaths of despair in our country, which are deaths related to suicide and alcohol and drug abuse.
He notes that the rate of these deaths of despair has doubled since the turn of the millennium, since the year 2002, far surpassing anything in the 20th century. In fact, had deaths of despair remained at their turn of the millennium levels, 70,000 fewer Americans would have died this past year. People are in despair. It betrays all sorts of things. One thing it betrays in addition to the accessibility of drugs, is that there’s a hopelessness about the future. This correlates to falling birth rates. People don’t want to live.
Amid this situation, which is happening on a global scale, think about your own life. Maybe there’s some situation in your own life where what you see makes you think something is hopeless. Maybe it’s a relationship that you think has no future, and you wish it did. Maybe it’s a child who just can’t seem to get it together, and you really think they’ve blown it for the last time. Maybe it’s a job you feel stuck in, and you really don’t see a future for it. Whatever it is that you see around you that leads you to despair, it isn’t just a sociological phenomenon. It’s a personal one.
We hear talk about faith being “the evidence of things unseen.” That’s how the writer to the Hebrews puts it. Faith is the reality that, despite how things look, God is at work. It’s a biblical pattern. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Rembrandt used the same model for Jeremiah that he used for his famous painting of St. Paul in prison, another haggard man who, despite the appearances of a world falling apart and impending doom, was writing these missives of great joy and hope about the future. But it doesn’t have to just be St. Paul. It could be Abraham. There are all sorts of bad-idea people in the Bible. The Bible is full of people who are given to trust God’s promises, despite how things look on the ground. And it makes all the difference.
In contemporary terms, faith is doubt of what seems obviously true, about you or about the world or about another person. Faith is moving beyond the perception of others or yourself or the world based on the facts on the ground and moving into a perception of what God says about these things.
When you say “the evidence of things unseen,” people sometimes say, “I want to talk to you about what’s real, which is what I can see. I don’t want to talk about what’s ‘unseen.’ That’s not real.”
When I hear that, I just want to say, “What do you mean?” You don’t have to be a religious person to know that the most real things in the world — I mean fear and love and guilt and trust and loyalty — these things are the most real. That’s what shapes how people act and think and do all the things that become seen. “The evidence of things unseen” is the realm in which God operates, and that’s good news, because that’s where most of life happens.
So again, if you’re talking about St. Paul, if you’re talking about Jeremiah, if you’re talking about Abraham, you’ll find that faith may make no sense right now. But God is in the redemption business, and we should note that the redemption business involves the promise of faith. It’s what they call the long game. Jeremiah is told to put these deeds “in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time.” The promises may not come to fruition for a while, or they may come soon, but faith is the long game.
Let me give you an example of how this all collides — despair and promise and seen and unseen — in the 1980 film My Bodyguard. It’s not amazing, but it’s pretty good. It’s the story of a young man named Linderman, and he’s a depressed high schooler who sort of exudes a “don’t mess with me” attitude, a bit of a bully, but he’s really more than that just a leather jacket-wearing, “don’t talk to me” kind of guy. And there are rumors about Linderman, that he wants to kill this kid. The truth is that he witnessed the death of his younger brother, and he’s come to blame himself for that incident. Linderman is in full scale shutdown as a 17-year-old. He’s headed for trouble. He’s what you would call a lost cause or a hopeless case. The future is not looking bright for this guy.
Well, then one day a new student named Carl befriends Linderman. Carl invites Linderman over to his house to meet his family, including Carl’s grandmother, who’s played by the amazing Ruth Gordon. (If you’ve ever seen Harold and Maude, she’s Maude.) Carl says, “You’re going to meet my grandmother. She’s a little crazy.”
Grandma Ruth immediately gravitates toward Lindemann, and she insists on showing the two boys a parlor trick, imposing upon Linderman to allow her to read his palm to tell his future. She takes his open hand in hers and, after a minute, she points to a pronounced scar on the boy’s wrist. “What’s this?” she asks. “It’s nothing,” he responds, trying to push his sleeve down and retract his hand in a closed fist. It was a scar left from the ultimate act of despair. He tried to kill himself.
And yet she persists. She grabs his fist back and opens his hand, saying, “I’m not through with you yet, kid. Give me your hand. You’re among friends.” Then she looks down at his hand and looks back at him, making eye contact: “I see a long life and good things, lots of good things.” And the boy’s whole countenance suddenly does a 180, and it is the beginning of a hugely redemptive plot line, those words being spoken over him. Where some, including Linderman himself, see despair and no future, Grandma Ruth sees hope.
It’s a beautiful picture of what it looks like to live in God’s world, despite the apocalyptic warnings that you see out there and in here. We often ask ourselves, “Am I a good investment?” Most of us, I think, if we’re being honest, maybe we pretend to be a good investment to gain people’s trust or their business. But if we were asked in the middle of the night, “Are you a good investment?,” we would likely say, “I don’t know if I could be good, but that person over there seems to have a lot more going on.”
I think we are afraid that we’re not a good investment, and most of us know what we’re like: that we say one thing and do another, that we’re not always as reliable as we should be, that maybe we’re self-interested when we should be self-giving, that maybe we’re simply not quite sure who or what we are. And we say that we’re afraid that we’re not a good investment.
Well, God sees all the things that you see, all the things you see out there and all the things you see in here, and he draws a different conclusion. You, my friends, are the real estate in this equation. And he spent a lot more than Jeremiah to procure you. “When the deal goes down,” as Bob Dylan says, there were lots of witnesses, and the deed of purchase is signed in God’s own blood. He gave his own life to make what looks like a terrible investment. But that is grace, that despite how things look, despite all the givens and the facts on the ground, goodness and light will flourish again. God is not through with you yet. Not by a long shot. “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
David Zahl is the founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries and serves on the staff of Christ Episcopal Church, Charlottesville, Virginia.