Thursday, March 21, 2019

Death as exile

The lectionary readings for Holy Communion today are Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Luke 16:19-31.

‘Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.
‘Blessed are those whose trust is in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.’

Jeremiah’s meditation on Psalm 1 seems naïve—and all the more so given that Jeremiah himself will later be imprisoned and even thrown into a cistern by the powerful men he spoke against (see chapters 37 and 38). But he has in mind the imminent exile, in which the elite of Jerusalem would be carried off into a far land as a consequence of their collective refusal to return to the LORD. The righteous and unrighteous alike would be swept away into exile; but there, those whose trust was in the LORD would flourish—the likes of Daniel, and his three friends, and Esther—while those whose hearts turned away from the LORD would whither.

Jesus told a parable—a provocative story—about two men, one rich and the other poor, one powerful and the other possessing less agency. The story starts in the world as we know it, and continues beyond death.

Death is the ultimate exile, being carried away from the land of the living. And all are carried away into exile, regardless of how they have lived. But the experience of the two men, both carried away, diverges: the one who had trusted in mere mortals and made mere flesh his strength experienced a parched wilderness wherein there was no relief to be found; the one whose trust was in the LORD experienced reviving, the absence of fear and anxiety.

Death is the ultimate exile. And like the Babylonian exile, exile is not the final destination. The Book of Daniel, itself set within the experience of exile, points to the resurrection of the dead, a physical resurrection within this world: the righteous raised to honour, and the unrighteous raised to shame.

Death is the ultimate exile, not the ultimate destination or state, reality, or end of the story. And the testimony of Jeremiah, of Jesus, of scripture, is that those who trust in the LORD do not need to fear exile, for even there they will be sustained.

But this trusting, and the kind of action that flows out from it—and, indeed, turning away from the LORD, and the kind of actions that flow out of trusting in our own strength and resources—starts here and now, grounded, as indeed the whole story is grounded, in this life in this world, so loved by God.

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