The prophets did not just speak. They also acted. Sometimes purely symbolically. Sometimes with a practical purpose. Faced with the imminent fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah made a move that sent out a message of hope for the people of his day. His action also provides us with an example of what it means to invest, unselfishly, for the good of future generations.
Advent 2009 – A World In Waiting
Week One – A New City
Day Two – A City of Justice
‘This is the name by which it will
‘And 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 the open copy; and I gave
the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in
the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who
were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts,
the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in
an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time.” For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of
Israel: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land”.’ Jeremiah 32: 9-15
The prophets did not just speak. They also acted. Sometimes purely symbolically. Sometimes with a practical purpose. Faced with the imminent fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah made a move that sent out a message of hope for the people of his day. His action also provides us with an example of what it means to invest, unselfishly, for the good of future generations. Jerusalem was about to be taken. What profit could there possibly be in spending good money to buy land in an area likely to fall into enemy hands? Yet Jeremiah was being asked to do just that by his cousin Hanamel whose dire circumstances put him in a position where he was forced to sell his plot of land in Anathoth. It was certainly not a seller’s market. Nor was Jeremiah ideally placed to buy it. He was a political detainee, kept under guard because he was viewed as an ‘enemy within’. Furthermore, there would be no descendants to whom he could pass it on. For Jeremiah had taken a vow not to marry. Yet he went ahead and purchased the land – and at a fair price, scrupulously observing all the legal niceties and taking care to ensure that the deeds were securely stored. Why? Partly because Hanamel was his cousin and Jeremiah’s act was an act of redemption. That was his right and his duty. In this way there was at least a chance that the property could be kept within the extended family – unless it was taken over by the invading Babylonians. But that is hardly the point of the story. The real point was that this was a symbolic act of hope for those who would come afterward. It was not a hope for himself. Jeremiah would be led off to Egypt where he would die, probably in his early 40s.
But by risking his money as he had risked his life, he bore witness to hope that the Lord would be faithful and that His people would one day return and ‘the time would come when houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought and sold in the land’(Jeremiah 32: 15).
This story of Jeremiah was held up by the German Lutheran pastor, theologian and prophet Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Like Jeremiah, Bonhoeffer was seen as an ‘enemy within’. He had been involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Like Jeremiah, he believed that the words he uttered while in detention might offer hope to the survivors of the catastrophe which was to follow, even though, unlike Jeremiah, he would be executed rather than witness the tragedy. In a Christmas letter in 1942 Bonhoeffer wrote: ‘We always used to consider it one of the basic human rights to be able to plan one’s life in advance…Those days are past…We are left with only the narrow path …of living each day as if it were our last, yet in faith and responsibility living as though a splendid future still lay before us: “Houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land” cries Jeremiah just as the Holy City is about to be destroyed, a striking contrast to his previous prophecies of woe. It is a divine sign and pledge of better things to come, just when all seems blackest. Thinking and acting for the sake of the coming generation, but taking each day as it comes without fear and anxiety – that is the spirit in which we are being forced to live in practice. It is not easy to be brave and hold out, but it is imperative.’ ‘Thinking and action for the sake of the coming generation…’ What might that mean in practical terms for today’s investors? Obviously it means taking the long view. Short-term-ism and short-selling may have limited usefulness insofar as such practices shock complacent firms into more efficient and creative ways of operating. Sometimes, however, such practices amount to sheer asset-stripping and pure speculation. In either case, they put firms under enormous pressure to produce immediate, monetary profits before all else. And this can actually undermine the true value – and usefulness – of the firms they are targeting. So concerned is the US Securities and Exchange Commission that it has decided to require that details of short-selling transactions be published on a daily basis. But it isn’t just shorting by hedge funds and activist shareholders that is the problem. Even long-term (defined as maintaining an investment for at least two years) institutional investors, such as pension funds, have reduced their holdings in equities by one-fifth since the credit crunch began according to a report by European Issuers. This, says the report, has ‘undermined the shareholder base of many companies, making them less stable’. One of its suggestions was that more companies should pay ‘loyalty dividends’ to companies that hold shares for more than two years, as is done in France. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Lord Myners, Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury,has proposed a controversial two-tier shareholder register that would give great voting rights to longer term shareholders. There may be better solutions but surely some action is needed to ensure that businesses are not treated just as milk cows and then sent off to slaughter.
The underlying lesson of Jeremiah’s action, however, is about the importance of using our resources not just for the longer-term future of a firm but for the longer term future of society and of our planet – for example, investing in clean and green technology – ‘Thinking and action for the sake of the coming generation…’ Taking the long view is risky. It may often require an act of (well-founded) faith. But might the example of Jeremiah encourage us to take the plunge…‘for the sake of the coming generation’?