Jeremiah’s purchase of a field when Jerusalem was under siege seemed to make no commerical sense, but it was a powerful prophetic gesture. Investments which are long-term, made on others’ behalf and carried out in obedience to God may have the character of love, not just faith and hope.
The year is 588 BC. The Babylonian army is hammering at the gates of Jerusalem. The prophet Jeremiah is under arrest as a traitor in the court of King Zedekiah because he has predicted the city’s downfall as punishment for the nation’s unfaithfulness. Hanamel, Jeremiah’s cousin, can see the writing on the wall: the only way to escape from poverty is to sell his property. Despite the fact that no-one was more convinced that the Babylonians would take the city than Jeremiah, he does his duty as kinsman-redeemer and accepts Hanamel’s request that he buy the field. The transaction is described in graphic detail:
And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighted 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 Neraiah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel…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 purchase of the field at Anathoth is no ordinary business transaction. Jeremiah himself never benefited from it. After the fall of Jerusalem, some Jewish refugees fled to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them (Jeremiah 43:5-7). As far as we know, he never returned.
Nevertheless, Jeremiah’s action was a powerful prophetic gesture. He acted as he did, not on his own behalf, but in response to God’s command and as an expression of hope for his younger compatriots. He was demonstrating that though the short-term prospect was bleak, they had a long-term future. His situation was unusual, his property purchase amidst a national crisis audacious. But the story does illustrate three important lessons.
First, investments can be long-term rather than short-term. National crises pass; economic downturns level out eventually. The property developer who picks up a plot of land dirt-cheap at the bottom of the market may be on to something lucrative if he keeps it long enough. Africa is the world’s poorest continent, racked by numerous problems, but there are clear indications that it now offers promising investment opportunities. Hope needs to be allied with faith. Such an attitude marks many Western Christians investing in social enterprises in the developing world today.
On Behalf of Others
Second, an investment has a different character if made, not principally for oneself, but on others’ behalf. Buying the Anathoth field was intended to encourage Jeremiah’s youthful contemporaries. His people faced the heartbreak of exile, but it wouldn’t last for ever; normal business would one day resume in the Jerusalem area. The transaction bore the marks not just of hope and faith, but of love. St Paul juxtaposed these three virtues in 1 Corinthians 13:13: ‘And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’ Yes indeed. Faith and hope are powerful motivators, but they can lose their spark. They need to be kindled by love, that active compassion which reaches out to change the fortunes of people who have odds stacked against them.. Long-term investment can express and embody love of neighbour, whether near or far away, and bring hope to a global economy that in many respects is built on selfishness.
Third, business transactions carried out in obedience to God’s commands tend to defy normal commercial criteria. Jeremiah bought the field in response to a ‘word of the Lord’. God may still lead his people to perform unlikely transactions today. Clearly one must be careful here. ‘Words from the Lord’ too easily turn out to be figments of deluded imagination. But if God spoke then, he can also speak now. What is to stop the Holy Spirit inciting acts of adventure that flout conventional business wisdom but ultimately prove shrewd speculation?
Let us take to heart the famous prayer of Sir Francis Drake:
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas, where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes, and to guide us into the future in strength, courage, hope and love.
Excerpt from Faith, Hope & the Global Economy, pp.223-225