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 find your welfare. (29:7)
It must have been hard for those taken into exile to welcome Jeremiah’s words. There must have been a sense that exile was something to be endured, or even an opportunity to work quietly against the interests of the conquering Babylonians. Propping up the Babylonian civil service, receiving an education among the conquerors, doing business in the city of exile could seem like collaboration, or at least defeatism – giving up on the return which was the hope of God’s people.
But God was clear in his call through Jeremiah. There would, one day, be a return, but it would happen when God was ready, and not before. In the meantime, the exiles were to play a full part in the life of Babylon – not just for their own survival but for the good of the city of which they were now a part. Identifying with Babylon didn’t mean forgetting Jerusalem, so much as bringing the God of Jerusalem into the heart of Babylon.
It’s easy still to feel the pangs of exile – for Christians, with the memories of Christendom still around in the experience of at least the older members of our churches, it’s tempting to concentrate on trying to hold on to what’s left of Jerusalem, and waiting for the world to come back to its senses. But if we’re in exile, we’ve got work to do while we’re here. Like the people of Jerusalem, we can hear and answer God’s call to seek the welfare of the city where we find ourselves – not just the physical city, though we still have a part to play in the blessing of our local communities. We are called to play our part in our culture and society, not as if from a position of authority but as exiles, resident aliens who have a distinctive voice but claim no right to be heard other than that of the value of our message. We are to be involved in the civic society, the business, the arts, the care of others and in all that makes our nation, city and parishes better places. It’s a matter of obedience – but also a matter of enlightened self-interest. For it is in the welfare of the society around us that we will find our own greater welfare.
Exile is not a call to nostalgia, but a call to involvement and action.