(That’s what the Bible said happened. This is what really happened.)
The guard pointed to a small grove of ancient olive trees, and I thanked him. “Be careful,” one of the uniformed soldiers said, as I walked toward the trees. “He’s a bit loonier today than usual.”
“I’m used to it by now,” I waved. “Each day, it’s something new.”
“I’ll bet that’s true,” one of the guards muttered to the other.
I ambled over for my daily visit with my long time friend. Jeremiah was sitting up against an olive tree. His eyes were closed, facing the sun. His long, black, mop hair was as wild as his personality.
“I hate this, Baruch,” Jeremiah said, sensing my approach, not even opening his eyes. “Day after flavorless day, it’s the same thing. I walk around; I sit down; I walk around; I sit down. I’ve memorized every bush and flower in this courtyard. I’ve even given them names so I can talk to them.”
“Hmmmmm,” I responded, glancing back at the group of guards staring my way.
“I mean, who’s ever heard of being held prisoner in a garden?” Jeremiah continued. “I can tell all my friends about my experience in the slammer. They’ll say, ‘Man, that musta been tough!’ I’ll say, ‘Yeah, the smell of the flowers really got to me.’”
We both laughed. Jeremiah knew better than I what a hell hole the real prison was. Underground. No light. Stagnant pools of air that even made dog’s breath smell good. Nothing grew down there, especially the human spirit.
“It is a weird blessing from this siege, isn’t it?” I said more than asked. “Who’d thought that King Zedekiah would turn the prison into food storage and his private garden into a prison.”
“It is ironic,” Jeremiah agreed. “The only place available to stick us prisoners is his favorite garden courtyard. HA! I’ll bet that twists ol’ Zedekiah’s tunic!”
I laughed again. “I’ll bet it does. I’ll bet it does.”
“Well,” Jeremiah asked after a long pause, “how tall are the siege ramps now?”
“Only about 10 or 15 cubits from the top, I’d estimate,” I told him. “I’d guess they’re maybe a week or so from breaching the walls.”
“So I was right,” Jeremiah said softly, “and the Lord’s words were accurate.”
“They usually are,” I replied.
“How large is the Babylonian army? Has it grown any in the last couple of days?” he asked me.
“When there’s already a few thousand men, what’s another thousand or so,” I said. “They have totally surrounded Jerusalem and they are as organized and as relentless as ants.”
“And they will keep working until we are all buried,” Jeremiah exhaled.
I couldn’t tell if Jeremiah was speaking prophetically or if he was just talking. His statement, like many of the things he says, made me stop and think. And then I started thinking out loud. “If I am to be killed when the Babylonians finally reach the top of the walls with their ramps, and I’m sure I will be, I only hope it will happen before the temple is polluted and destroyed by these heathens,” I said.
“I’m afraid you won’t get your wish,” my master said wistfully. “The Babylonians don’t like dealing with corpses. Slaves are more to their liking. But they do know how to destroy--and once they get over those walls, neither Zedekiah nor his temple have a prayer. Maybe,” Jeremiah added after pausing a moment, “it will be better that way.”
I looked at him with a question-mark drawn on my face. I had no idea what he meant, but I wrote it down anyway. I tried to write down everything Jeremiah said these days. I never knew which of the words I wrote down would be his last.
It seemed to me that the whole situation was absolutely hopeless. Saying that Jerusalem would get out of this mess would be like saying a man could fly to the moon. It just wasn’t going to happen. We are doomed. And all’s we can do is sit and wait for it to happen. Which will be sooner than later.
“I’m going to have a visitor today, Baruch,” Jeremiah said, shifting the conversation.
“And here I am,” I said with a smile and my arms extended like a ta-da. I was the only one who visited Jeremiah. Except the King, who would come into the garden to mock Jeremiah, and mostly scream at him. It was very entertaining, when it happened.
“No, someone else. A relative I haven’t seen for years.”
“Who could that be,” I asked. “None of your relatives have wanted to have anything to do with you for years.”
“Yes, it’s hard being the black sheep of the family,” Jeremiah said with mock sincerity. “But this relative will want something from me.”
“What?” I asked.
“You’ll see soon enough, Baruch,” he told me cryptically.
I sat down, leaned my back against the same tree Jeremiah was up against. We just sat there and surveyed what the other handful of prisoners were doing. The same as us. Laying in the grass. A few were talking to each other over by the white limestone wall that surrounded the courtyard.
The whole city was built of white limestone--even the walls that would soon fall. It was a beautiful city. Already, I am thinking about it in the past tense. As if it was and is no more.
“Master, do you see those two birds over at the fountain,” I pointed for Jeremiah.
“Starlings, Baruch. Each of God’s creatures have a name.”
“Whatever,” I said. Then, “Don’t you wish we could be those two birds?”
“I don’t follow you,” Jeremiah replied.
“Well, look at them. They are splashing and flitting around. They sit in the same sun as we do and preen and clean themselves, oblivious to the army outside. They probably don’t even care. They probably fly over there and sit on their tent lines. The Babylonians probably don’t even notice them. It doesn’t bother those two birds--starlings--that Jerusalem is about to be flattened. They will still be flying around, finding food and water, regardless of what we humans do. I just think it would be nice to be free like that. Free and oblivious to the march of historical events.”
“Hey; Captain Moonbeam; You’ve got another visitor,” the guard shouted across the courtyard, interrupting my thoughts.
“Why do they keep calling you that, Master?”
“They think I’m affected by the light of the moon, and since I am evidently crazier than most, they initiated me as the captain of all the crazies.”
I shook my head in disgust.
A short man, the shape of an overly large grapefruit waddled over to where we sat. “Jeremiah, so good to see you again,” he said shaking my hand and pulling me close.
“I’m Baruch,” I said. He let go his embrace of me immediately. “This is my master, Jeremiah,” I introduced.
“Of course, of course,” he said. “Just a silly mistake. It’s been a long time, you know. Let’s see, just how long has it been?” he asked trying to make anxious conversation.
I didn’t like this guy. He reminded me of the used cow dealers outside the city. They had all moved inside the city because of the Babylonian army.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever met you,” Jeremiah said honestly.
“Ah, come on. You don’t remember your cousin Mel?”
“I can’t say that I do.”
“You know; Hanamel. Everyone just calls me Mel. The son of your uncle Shally.”
“You mean, Shallum?” Jeremiah asked. “The one who threw me out of his house at a family gathering because we got in a fight talking religion and politics?”
“Well, ya can’t talk religion and politics with dad. He’s just too smart and he knows what’s going on around here.”
“I assure you, son of ‘Shally,’ he has no idea what’s going on around here.”
“Well, not anymore, at least,” Mel said. “He’s dead.”
“That will make him one of the lucky ones when this is all over,” Jeremiah interjected.
“Well, that’s kind of what I’d like to talk with you about, Jeremiah. Can I call you Jerry?” Hanamel asked.
“Absolutely not,” Jeremiah said coldly. “Speak,” Jeremiah finally said not unlocking his glare at Mel, making Hanamel visibly spooked.
“Well, when my father--your uncle--died (God rest his soul), he left me a field out near Anathoth. It’s just a mile or so south. I really have no need for that field. So I’ve been looking for a buyer. None of my brothers want it, nor do their sons. So that means you’re next in line.” He smiled broadly, and full of fakery, batting his fingertips together.
“Oh, come on!” I blurted out. “You’ve got to be kidding!?”
“What do you mean?” Hanamel shot back. “It’s a great piece of property. It’s produced bumper crops of grain ever since it’s been in the family. It has it’s own spring.”
“That’s not what I mean,” I shouted, making the guards turn their heads in our direction. “Ten thousand Babylonian soldiers are camped on that field. We’re all gonna die. No one would give a basket full of rotten figs for your field?”
“I’ll take it,” Jeremiah said calmly.
“What!?” I now turned on my master. “Are you really as lunar as the guards say you are? This is absolute idiocy!”
“How much do you want, Hanamel?” Jeremiah asked.
“I’ll tell you what. Since you’re family, I’ll cut you a deal.” He gave Jeremiah a coy wink. “I wouldn’t do this for anyone else. But far be it from me to take advantage of my favorite cousin. For you, seventeen pieces of silver.”
“You have got to be out of your mind as well. Is this whole family mad?” I exploded, standing up to face this overly ripe con man. “That field isn’t worth the clay it’s made of! And that’s even a stretch!”
“I’ll pay it,” Jeremiah said, once more as calmly as before.
“Master,” shifting my attention away from, and turning my back on Mel. “This guy is no more than an old wineskin full of gas. He’s taking advantage of you, big time. He knows no one will ever be back here to plow that field ever again. Not him, nor his brothers, nor his sons. In a couple of weeks we will all be gone or dead. And it’s being trampled by Babylonians as we speak. They probably dug up the topsoil and are using it to build their ramps right now! You might as well be buying a ray of the sun or a piece of the wind! What have you got to say to that!?”
“Take out your scroll and start writing. Write up a deed for the sale. That’s what I have to say.”
I looked down into his eyes as he spoke. Matched with his tone of voice I knew he was serious. And I also knew there was much more going on here than what it appeared to be. I remembered he had told me another visitor would be coming today. How did he know?
I had been around Jeremiah much too long to know he didn’t do things on a whim. Everything was calculated. Everything was material for a message from God. I shook my head knowingly, sat back down and began to write.
“You’re a very shrewd man,” Mel started in again. “This land will be worth...”
“Oh, shut up,” I interrupted, looking up from my work. Mel made an attempt at a dirty look, then went on babbling about his family to Jeremiah as I wrote out two copies of the deed. “This will need signatures of witnesses,” I finally said when I was done.
“The guards would be fine with me,” Hanamel said. He went over to get a couple of them to act as witnesses. When everyone had signed, my master told me to pay Hanamel the 17 pieces of silver. I pulled the money bag from the waist of my tunic and counted them out to him in the presence of all.
“Give Hanamel one of the copies of the deed,” Jeremiah said flatly. I did so, and he skipped away, saying what a pleasure it was doing business with us.
One of the guards looked at me and said, “See what I meant what we said earlier about this guy,” pointing their finger at Jeremiah, then twirling that same finger around their ears while they whistled.
Jeremiah laughed at them. As the guards walked away, Jeremiah turned to me and said, “Tomorrow when you come, bring a shovel and a clay jar. We will bury this deed over amongst these olive trees.”
“Master,” I said, “I am totally confused.”
“Would you be confused at God, my friend, Baruch?” he asked me.
“To be honest, master, I am confused at God’s ways sometimes. Like at this very minute.”
“Tell me, Baruch, how do you interpret what I just did by buying this field?”
“It probably wasn’t the craziest thing you’ve done. But it certainly was in the top three of the stupidest things I think you’ve done.”
“It wasn’t an act of stupidity, Baruch. It was a deliberate act of hope.”
“How so, master?”
“You base your evaluation on the facts of what you see around you. Indeed, anyone with eyes wide open would realize the situation is bleak. By all visible reality, what I just did was at least impractical; if not, as you say, down right stupid.”
I nodded in agreement.
“But,” Jeremiah continued, getting to his feet and starting to pace a bit, “what if there is another reality? A reality that is even now being constructed, but not yet visible? Then you must decide which reality is stronger, surer. The one that is, or the one that is to come?”
“I don’t know what you’re getting at exactly,” I said. I always felt like a simpleton when he started talking like this.
“OK; think of it this way, Baruch. What if that other reality that is now being constructed, but not yet visible, is our future. And let’s say that future is being constructed by God. If you got even a glimpse of that future, and the future looked good, which ‘reality’ would you buy in to--the present, devastatingly morbid reality, or the future reality of God?”
“I always bet on God,” I answered.
“And so do I,” Jeremiah slapped me on the back. “That’s what I just did. I just bought into God’s future. Because the future isn’t out there with the Babylonians and death and destruction. They may come.”
“They will come,” I interjected.
“OK; they will come. I’ll give you that, my friend. But the future is not on their side. It’s on God’s side. That’s why I said I just performed an act of hope. Of faith. Hope is buying into what we truly believe even though it’s not visible. At least not yet.”
“Given the current circumstances, that’s a very hard thing to do,” I replied.
“Of course it is, dear Baruch. It’s far easier to wallow in despair than it is to live in hope. When we live in doom and gloom we don’t have to do anything, or risk anything. Those seventeen pieces of silver symbolize my risk-taking in the name of God’s future.”
“But Mel is the one who’s laughing all the way to the bank,” I said, shaking my head. “In fact, he and all his relatives are laughing at you now.”
“Let him laugh all the way to the bank. Can’t you see, Baruch? What’s the use of putting his money in the bank when even the bank isn’t going to last? I want to invest in something that seems like smoke now; but in the end will be more substantial than any bank. Let them laugh, Baruch. Hope says we get the last laugh. God always gets the last laugh, and we with him if we dare put our hope in the LORD. If we live in hope, we always go against the grain. But never against God’s grain. Hope is the only action that survives the decay of the present moment,” he said looking down at me with the surest smile I’ve ever seen on him.
I looked up at him for a long time. He seemed bigger than life. The sun shined behind him as if it were the radiance of God filling him and inspiring him. For all I knew, that’s exactly what it was.
I stood and embraced him. “I’ll go find us a jar and a shovel,” I said.
“Borrow one from the Babylonians,” he laughed.
As I walked back through the entrance of the courtyard, past the guards, I laughed to myself as I realized Jeremiah truly was as free as a bird.