Hope isn’t wishful thinking – it is grounded in our experience of the divine and the reality that swirls around us. It acknowledges that God is an active player who requires that humbly his people do justly and act mercifully.
There are few things in world history more astonishing than the preservation of hope for Israel by Israel and the roller coaster ride of the continuous fulfillment and disastrous destruction of their hope. Had Israel’s hopes been merely wishful thinking Israel would have disappeared from history like all the nations that surrounded them. But the people of Israel had experiences in their past, divine guidance and intervention which saved them through overwhelming dangers, bound them together as a nation through the gift of the law by the God of justice, whose justice is demonstrated when God judges God’s own nation and threatens to reject it, if it does not keep justice within itself.
Paul Tillich proclaimed that we have a right to such ultimate hope, for like Israel we too experience the presence of the eternal in us and in our world here and now. We experience it in moments of silence and in hours of creativity. We experience it in the conflicts of our conscience and in the hours of peace with ourselves, we experience it in the unconditional seriousness of the moral command and in the ecstasy of love. We experience it when we discover a lasting truth and feel the need for a great sacrifice. We experience it in the beauty that life reveals as well as in its demonic darkness. We experience it in moments in which we feel: This is a holy place, a holy thing, a holy person, a holy time; these experiences transcend the ordinary ones; they gives more, demand more, points to the ultimate mystery of my existence, of all existence; it shows me that my finitude, my transitoriness, my being, surrendered to the flux of things, is only one side of my being and that humanity is both in and above finitude.
Where this is experienced, there is awareness of the eternal, there is already, however fragmentary, participation in the eternal. This is the basis of the hope for eternal life; it is the justification of our ultimate hope. And if as Christians we point to Good Friday and Easter, we point to the most powerful example of the same experience.
As much as our rugged individualized theology suggests, participation in the eternal is not given to the voluntarily isolated individual, a people who intentionally separate themselves from others because they see themselves as special or the nation that supposes itself to be chosen and exceptional beyond all the rest. Participation in the eternal is given to us as we discover ourselves in unity with all others, with humankind, with everything living, with everything that has being and is rooted in God’s creation. It was when Israel’s elite lost that perspective and, focusing on their own chosen-ness and assumed security, they became a predator society. They ignored the needs of the vulnerable among them upon whose labor they lived lives of exorbitant luxury. It was in times like that when their privileged life style caused their roller coaster to take a steep dive into exile and near extinction.
There are many stages of complicity in what has been characterized as a predatory society. I’m afraid none of us can claim an exemption.
Today we prefer to point to our super elite. Few of us can imagine what living in the economic stratosphere is like. These people live at a level beyond the rich man in the ‘rich man and Lazarus’ story. Next to them we have the well to do, those for whom the phrase ‘if you’ve got to ask you can’t afford it’ is descriptive. Like those economically above them they exist on incomes provided by inherited and invested wealth. These persons become addicted to living in a bubble of unrealistic notions of entitlement, privilege and superiority.
Next in line are those whose lives consist of dreams of upward mobility mixed with the fears of the consequences of economic decline. Fulfilling their dreams or realizing their worst fears are beyond their control and result from the decisions of those they serve. The Bible aptly describes them in the story of the unjust steward.
Of course there are those whose livelihood comes from their productive labor, whether they work for themselves or are employees of others. Because they have marketable skills, abilities and opportunities they set themselves above those who for reasons of birth, disability, disease, ignorance or simple sloth live on the margin. Amos chided his contemporaries who engaged in illusionary self-indulgence but were not “grieved over the ruin of Joseph.” So caught up in their pursuit of the good life they didn’t notice that their world was crumbling beneath them.
Walter Brueggeman, out of his Old Testament perspective, said that the orphans, widows and immigrants are the canaries of any social system. He points out that abuse of the vulnerable is an affront to God and a violation of God’s rules for righteous living. Leviticus 25:35-37 reads “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. Such abuse is an unsustainable policy for any society. In the act of ignoring the challenges faced by the powerless destructive and costly consequences arise for the body politic. The real tragedy is that disregard of both God and neighbor permits a predatory society to seem normal and acceptable.
When Babylon showed up at Jerusalem’s main gate, the big issue for Israel was her blindness to the fact that the good life she thought was secure was disintegrating beneath her feet. The leadership was in full denial. Jeremiah 6:13-15 reads: 13For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. 14They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. 15They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord. 16Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it.”
So then the prophet speaks for God: 18Therefore hear, O nations, and know, O congregation, what will happen to them. 19Hear, O earth; I am going to bring disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not given heed to my words; and as for my teaching, they have rejected it.
With no shame for their greedy exploitation of the vulnerable they continued to mouth the words “Shalom, Shalom”. Two chapters later Jeremiah repeats himself. His contemporary, Ezekiel, in 13:9, castigates the professional prophets, speaking for God he says: “My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations.”
Some how the urban elite of Jerusalem and leaders of Israel truly believed that they were above correction by God, too special to fail. They were warned that pestilence, the sword, famine and captivity would be the result of their economic treachery but they persisted, actually saying (in Zephaniah 1:12 “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” They took God out of the equation all together. That sounds a bit contemporary.
There’s a humorous colloquy that occurs between the professional prophet Hananiah and Jeremiah. Hananiah is something of a strict constructionist who in the aftermath of the Babylonian siege dismantling of the Temple reiterates centuries old promises of God’s protections, in full denial of the changed situation. …the prophet Hananiah…spoke to me in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, 2“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. 4I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” You’d expect that Hananiah would be presented as a charlatan or a quack, an idolater or an immoral and deceptive individual However Hananiah, whose name means “Yahweh is gracious,” is presented as a model of prophetic propriety. He uses all the right language, including the typical “Thus says the Lord.” He also performs symbolic acts like Jeremiah. He is given genealogical and geographical identity and placed in an historical context, no different than Jeremiah.
The only clue to the “falseness” of Hananiah’s preaching is the word he speaks. And many would have concluded that he is even more believable than Jeremiah. He preaches the gospel so clearly! God is about to act in saving ways on behalf of Israel. Those are words a despairing people wanted to hear. Jeremiah even has to hesitate for some time before he sees through what Hananiah has to say.
Hope isn’t pipe dreams and wishful thinking. Hope is only hope when it is grounded in reality.
Jeremiah had himself fitted out with a wooden yoke, trying to make his point that God’s punishment for Israel’s injustice for the poor was that she would live under the yoke of Babylonian oppression . Hananiah breaks Jeremiah’s wooden yoke arguing that in two years everything will be as it used to be. In response Jeremiah shoulders an iron yoke which can’t be broken. He says “Go, tell Hananiah, Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them (v.13). The lesson has to do with Hananiahs’ willingness to endorse denial, his refusal to see the world that is actually in front of him, his inability to see that the God of rigorous requirements is active.
All powers of creation are in us, and we are in them. We do not hope for us alone or for those alone who share our hope; we hope also for those who had and have no hope, for those whose hopes for this life remain unfulfilled, for those who are disappointed and indifferent, for those who despair of life, and even for those who have hurt or destroyed life. Certainly, if we could only hope each for himself it would be a poor and foolish hope. Hope isn’t wishful thinking – it is grounded in our experience of the divine and the reality that swirls around us. It acknowledges that God is an active player who requires that humbly his people do justly and act mercifully.