Jeremiah's promise of a future restoration for Israel and Judah centers on the image of a righteous branch. This image, while somewhat strange to our culture, carries along with it a rich and varied tradition, deeply rooted in the world and literature of the Old Testament. The tree of life in the Garden of Eden links trees with ideas of abundance, fertility and renewal.
The Old Testament also uses arboreal imagery to talk about leaders, especially kings. In the famous passage from Isaiah 11:1, the king in the line of David is a "shoot" and "branch." In this way, blessings from God reminiscent of Eden are delivered by way of a royal figure.
While this imagery is not unique, it is somewhat surprising here in Jeremiah because -- to put it in a nutshell -- Jeremiah hates politicians. Sharp criticism of kings in particular, and skepticism about kings in general, dominate the first 30 chapters of the book. And yet, the prophet's vision of hope has a king at the center.
Before explaining Jeremiah's "righteous branch" further, a quick and dirty overview of the book's historical context will help set the stage. The book of Jeremiah straddles the most momentous event of Israel's history: the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and the exile of its leaders to Babylon (586 B.C.E.). In the first half of the book of Jeremiah, the prophet announces that God is furious with the people of Judah, in particular its leaders, because they have re-negged on the covenant they made with God through Moses. They have not taken care of the poor, and they have not lived according to the stringent demands to worship God alone.
Not surprisingly, the leaders do not want to hear Jeremiah's critiques of their ways of doing business. No politician wants to look weak -- even before a god. According to Jeremiah, the leaders of Judah have prioritized not the building of an ethical community, but their own comfort and position. Their desire to maintain their own power and influence has trumped everything. And these politicians have justified their behavior so many times and in so many ways, they don't even recognize how far they have fallen from the ideal that guided the building of the nation.
This description of the leadership in Judah prior to its destruction rings a lot of contemporary bells. I don't think you have to be a political radical to see some connections between Jeremiah's characterization of Judah's pre-exilic government and our U.S. government. Even in an ideologically divided nation such as ours, Democrats and Republicans alike agree that their politicians often prioritize the maintenance of their own power at the expense of the nation's interests. Shocking displays of self-interested hypocrisy among politicians drive the abysmal job approval ratings of Congress.
As the country slides toward the fiscal cliff, politicians focus on how they can push a rival over the edge rather than on trying to break the nation's fall. So many of our country's leaders deliver sound bites that assign blame. Jeremiah would not be surprised.
Given Jeremiah's cynicism about politicians, it is remarkable that when he makes a radical turn to announce hope instead of judgment, at the center of his hope is a political leader.
The difference has to do Jeremiah's new vantage point. When he speaks in chapter 33, his prophecy that Judah would be destroyed has come to pass. Babylon's armies are invading the land with an efficient brutality. Sounds of war and scenes of death are the backdrop for his prophecies of hope and renewal.
This mass-scale destruction of the existing structures of life and of government is what creates the space for Jeremiah to come around and embrace the idea of a new king, who will get it right this time. It is only when the way of life that bankrupted Judah ethically and physically is razed to the ground that Jeremiah can begin to imagine a way forward.
To paint his vision of restoration, Jeremiah mines his tradition. He does not reject government because government has messed up so royally. Rather, he re-envisions it in a radically new guise. With the old forms of life destroyed, the prophet looks out on the wasted landscape and begins to fill it with images of beauty, peace and wholeness.
The images of life-after-disaster are not overblown with glitter and diamonds and champagne. Instead Jeremiah casts a scene of normal everyday life. In the midst of chaos, memories of the regular rhythms of life take on new significance and new beauty.
Jeremiah preaches that the end marks a beginning. In the waste, he sees an opportunity for a fresh start. A righteous branch, pruned from a dying tree and replanted by God, will mark the tentative new start for this people.
A leader who is defined by righteousness from the inside out stands at the center of this restored community, ensuring that justice pervades every corner of the society. This king is radical, not because he does something never imagined, but because he actually does what he should do. He rules, not in the service of securing power and prestige for himself, but for the good of others.
The city under this new king will be so secure, so safe for everyone (and not just a few), and so radically changed that it will need a new name: "the Lord is our righteousness." When early Christians encountered Jesus, they saw him as the fulfillment of this prophecy.
While Jews and Christians have interpreted messianic prophecies in different ways over time, both religions tend to believe that redemption follows chaos and upheaval. The old structures of oppression and injustice are broken down to make way for a new creation.
For Jeremiah, the new creation is imagined as radically inclusive and disarmingly ordinary. In the image of the righteous branch, justice and righteousness spring forth from the ground and lead to life abundant for all.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.