Instructions for Living in the Empire

There are a few “fringe theologians” who disavow friendship with the United States of America. Some, like Shane Claiborne, refer to the USA as “Empire” and disavow it, trying to live “off the grid,” away from the realm of America. The idea that the church is this Kingdom of God that will never be destroyed or conquered, and that all other kingdoms will crumble into nothingness (Daniel 2:44) and that, as Christians, we should live away from it and wait for it to fall. It makes sense in some ways… which is why it’s such attractive heresy.

Last night, I was reading in Jeremiah 29 from The Message and found a few lines that were, at least for the moment, more fascinating than verse 11:

This is the Message from God-of-the-Angel-Armies, Israel’s God, to all the exiles I’ve taken from Jerusalem to Babylon:

“Build houses and make yourselves at home.

Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country.

Marry and have children. Encourage your children to marry and have children so that you’ll thrive in that country and not waste away.

Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare.
Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7, MSG, emphasis mine)

In case, perhaps, The Message isn’t to your taste, here’s the NASB:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon,

Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce.

Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease.

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.

The theme is the same. Build houses. Live in them. (Funny that He says to “live” in the houses. I guess sometimes we want to build houses and… just “stay there” temporarily.) Build houses. Make yourself at home. Get married. Make babies. Tell your kids to get married and make babies.

This is the part where it gets interesting, though – the instructions for how to interact with The Empire: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to YHVH on its behalf.” (Or, from The Message, “Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare. Pray for Babylon’s well-being.”) It’s this idea that even though they were only going to live there for seventy years (see verse 10), they WERE going to live there for seventy years, and that they should… live there. Get comfortable. You’re gonna be here for a while. He says (if I may take this liberty with the text), “Don’t live off the grid. Be a part of the system. This isn’t your permanent home, but it’s going to be your home for a while, so take care of it, and don’t hope for its destruction. Its destruction is coming, and when that happens, you’re going home… but for now, live there. Pray for it.

This is relevant for Christians because Rich Mullins, commenting on Psalm 137, once asked “…what land have we ever been in that wasn’t foreign?” And truly, we only live in this “foreign land” (for heaven is our true home) for seventy or eighty years, and were I one of those theologians capable of insisting that even Song of Songs is only applicable to Christ and the Church, I could point out how this is reflective of our lives here on earth: this is a foreign land, but we are to live in it.

The Prosperity Gospel

And then God makes this really interesting statement: “Pray to YHVH on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7b, Holman Christian Standard Bible, emphasis mine.)

There’s been a huge backlash against the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” that’s been put forth in abundance by Joel Osteen and teachers like him. Joel Osteen’s argument has been, “You’re a child of the King! Live like it! Your dad is rich,” etc, etc, etc. Which is true. The backlash has been to say that “No, everyone isn’t rich just because he or she is a Christian, so stop acting like it. In fact, if you’re a Christian, you should be poor like Jesus was.” And, truth be told, I think the reality of the situation is somewhere in the middle. It is true that we are to be good stewards of the material possessions that God gives us, and we are told in Hebrews 13:16 not to “…neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (ESV) However, we are told in Proverbs 10:22 that “It is the blessing of the LORD that makes rich, And He adds no sorrow to it.” (NASB)

I think what we need to accept is that 1) God’s blessing makes rich, 2) Just because you AREN’T rich doesn’t mean that you don’t have God’s blessing on your life (See also “Jesus”), and 3) it’s totally okay to ask God to bless us with prosperity so long as prosperity does not become our chief goal, as we see in I Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil…” (NASB). The way I see it, if you don’t have anything to share, you can’t share it.

Also, there has to be this understanding that 4) Our resources are not ours; they are God’s, and are not to be held too tightly.

Paul, talking about giving in II Corinthians 8, says this in verse 9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” (NASB)

Additionally, we see from Jeremiah 29:5 that it’s totally okay to have a house. It does not seem that God is calling his people to be homeless. And it’s also totally okay to live there. To enjoy it. …I can hear it now: “Horrors! Enjoy the blessings that God has given us?! May it never be!”

But if we see God as a loving Father, maybe it’ll make more sense. Maybe we can accept that He desires for us to enjoy those things that He has given us. Not only that He doesn’t mind if we enjoy them, but that He desires for us to! Maybe this stuff is only revolutionary ideas for me. Or maybe it’s something that we all know, but… need to be reminded of sometimes.

Or maybe I’m just externally processing here.

About David M. Schell





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