The first reading for this Second Sunday after Christmas is Jeremiah 31:7–14:
For thus says the LORD: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.”
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the LORD. (Jer 31:7–14 NRSV)
How is a Palestinian Christian reading that those words in Israeli-occupied Jerusalem supposed to respond to the ‘word of the Lord’?
My first reaction as someone listed to preach today at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr in Jerusalem was dismay. This is a problematic text for Palestinian Christians living with dispossession, ethnic cleansing, occupation, and systemic—even if sometimes unofficial—discrimination. How can such a text serve as the word of life for a Christian Arab?
This is not a new problem. Many OT texts offer exactly the same challenge, and specially those associated with the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the land by Joshua. How does an Arab Christian read these Jewish texts in Palestine today?
On the one hand, I am grateful for the discipline of the lectionary. With all its faults (and they are many), the lectionary requires us to move beyond our comfort zones and engage with portions of Scripture that we might otherwise choose to ignore.
In this case, we have a text set for the second Sunday after Christmas, which is a rare Sunday in the cycle. It only occurs in those years when two Sundays fall between December 25 and January 6. So it would be possible to attend church regularly and never encounter this part of Jeremiah 31.
Just my luck, then, to be the rostered preacher today!
My first response was to consult the Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture, a module in my ever useful Accordance Bible software package. What I found was that those early Fathers who addressed this passage tended to spiritualise the meaning, and interpret the ‘remnant of Israel’ as the Christian Church. That is a hermeneutical strategy that I cannot and will not employ as it fails to take seriously the continued presence of the Jewish people as the covenant community among the nations.
Of course, I can quite properly observe that these words from Jeremiah themselves derive from a context: ancient Judah, around 580 BCE. At that time Jerusalem was in ruins following the conquest of Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army. Many Jews—and most of the elite—were languishing in Exile in Babylon, present day Iraq. Others had fled to Egypt as refugees. Jeremiah himself was soon to be kidnapped and taken off to Egypt with one band of refugees.
In that context, Jeremiah speaks a message of hope. This too will pass. YHWH will bring the scattered Jews home to the land of promise. They will prosper once more in their own land.
We cannot limit the spiritual significance of Jeremiah 31 to the sixth century BCE. His words were received by the ancient Jewish community and found their way into the future Jewish Bible that is itself the ground of the larger Christian Bible.
These ancient texts have an ‘afterlife’ that extends way beyond their original context. We read them today in Christian churches all around the world. And we read them this morning at the Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem.
So how is a Palestinian Christian supposed to ‘hear what the Spirit is saying to the church’ when this text is read in our liturgies today?
It seems to me that the Spirit is inviting us to engage with the challenge of fashioning a constructive Christian theology of the Jewish presence in Palestine.
That was not what Jeremiah had in mind when these words were first written, but we are accountable for what we make of these words here and now—in this context, right now—rather than for their significance 2,500 years ago.
How can a Palestinian Christian enunciate a theology of Jewish presence in Palestine? Why should we bother? Why not just complain of the injustice, and appeal to the international bodies to intervene on our behalf?
It is too easy to complain and protest. That also needs to happen, and especially when the injustice is so clear and so prolonged. But we must do more than complain about the injustice. We must offer a theology of hope for the future, and such a theology must include a positive and constructive proposal for the presence of the Jewish people among us in this land.
I do not claim to have such a theology prepared, and I will not keep talking this morning until I finish the task of shaping one. We may never get to have lunch!
However, I think this is the challenge that the Spirit places before us today as we reflect on this passage from Jeremiah, in the context of occupied Palestine, and in the days after Christmas. If the angels promised peace on earth to those of goodwill, perhaps we need to demonstrate our goodwill if we are to experience God’s peace.
Imagine the contribution that Christians could make to reconciliation and peace in this land if we could find a way to speak in positive terms of the proper place of the Jewish people among us in Palestine. This is their land as much as it is our land. How we can find the grace to say that, and to work for a solution to the conflict between our two peoples, who share both a common history and the same land?
I do not imagine that I have the words yet, but I do think God is calling us to the task of being peacemakers who can see Christ in the other, even in the one who steals our land and denies our own right to be here.
God give us the grace to begin that immense project.