Strangers in a Strange Land
I left home on August 17, 2012, and haven’t been home since. Sure, I’ve returned to the place where I grew up, but I no longer call it home because I know I can’t stay there forever. Visits back to my former home are by definition, temporary, and always involve a return trip back to school. Berkeley is not my home either though, but rather just a resting place on a long journey. I live as though I have a future after Berkeley, and refrain from becoming too attached to specific people, cafes, libraries, and classes, knowing that I will soon no longer have those things in my life. I am essentially an exile, a stranger living in a land that is not my home.
Yet my life on earth is temporary too. It is a mere drop compared to the ocean of time I will have after I die. How then should I live, both as a college student, residing in Berkeley for four years, and as a human, residing on earth for a mere snippet of eternity?
The prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to Israelites exiled in Babylon, a group of people much more similar to me than I initially realized. The Israelites were taken from their home, a centuries-old nation built on a promise God made to Abraham[i], and brought to Babylon, a rising nation bursting with both intellectual opportunities and pagan idols. God’s command to these exiles as recorded by Jeremiah sheds light on how I should live.
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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.[ii]
Later in the letter, Jeremiah tells the Israelites they will be exiled in Babylon for seventy years[iii]; therefore they should spend that time (essentially the rest of their lives) building houses, multiplying, and more broadly, seeking the welfare of the city.
What exactly does it mean to “seek the welfare of the city”? In Hebrew, “welfare” is translated shalom, a word Jews still use to greet one another and one which “covers all aspects of peace and plenty.”[iv] At that time, “the city” was an individual’s whole world and all that they knew, so seeking the welfare of the city is analogous to seeking the welfare of this world.
One of the recipients of this letter was Daniel, a Hebrew selected to serve in the Babylonian court – the same Daniel who left the lion’s den completely unharmed. Daniel took Jeremiah’s letter seriously and exemplified what it means to live faithfully as an exile. Through Jeremiah’s letter, God tells the exiles that he sentthem into exile. Therefore, Daniel knew Babylon was where God deliberately placed him and faithfully did his work with excellence, even though it directly benefitted Babylon, not Israel. He used the resources God gave him, “learning and skill,”[v] to eventually become the third highest ruler of Babylon. Even his enemies could find “no error or fault in him.”[vi]
I too can seek the welfare of this world by doing my work with excellence. Unlike Daniel, I am primarily a student right now, and with each semester, I seem to have more texts to read, papers to write, and problem sets to complete. Yet as Paul commanded the Colossian slaves, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”[vii] As a Christian, I am asked to put my heart into my work, doing it for the glory of God. Rather than just plowing through tasks to complete them, I can do them with excellence, knowing that God sees the effort I put in.
Another aspect of seeking a city’s welfare is investing in the people around me. Rather than asking the Israelites to keep themselves pure by gathering as one community and limiting contact with the Babylonians, God tells them to intermarry with the Babylonians, becoming fully integrated into that society. I do not intend to literally “take wives and have sons and daughters,” but the point nevertheless is clear. Invest in the people around me – roommates, classmates, coworkers, and random people I happen to meet. Be willing to enter others’ lives, Christian or non-Christian, and listen to their stories, encourage them, and bless them with my time, talents, and treasures. Though time on earth may seem short compared to all of eternity, it is definitely long enough to make a difference in someone else’s life. An investment implies a pay-off, and God promises that when I seek the welfare of those around me, I will find my own welfare.
A final—and related—part of seeking a city’s welfare is bringing shalom to it. According to Paul, for Christians, true shalom—completeness, peace, contentment—is found not just in knowing Christ, but is Christ himself[viii]. The greatest way to seek the welfare of others in my life is by telling them about the source of all shalom, Jesus.
Bringing shalom to others necessarily involves sharing my beliefs with others, which begins with being open about my faith. Because Daniel worshipped God freely, contrary to the law, he was thrown into a lion’s den. However, God delivered Daniel by shutting the lions’ mouths, leading King Darius to praise God and decree that all Babylonians “tremble and fear before [God] for he is the living God, enduring forever.”[ix] Because Daniel was open about his faith, the whole kingdom heard about God.
Jeremiah’s letter finishes with an amazing promise from the Creator of the universe:
When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.[x]
God promised the exiles that after seventy years, he would bring them home. Many would not live to see that day, but they would be able to fully invest themselves in Babylon knowing that they could trust in God’s promise. They were part of a larger story, one that would extend far beyond their lives. Israel would not be exiled forever, but would return home soon. However, this home would be even better than the one they left, since they would know God intimately there. Though the present looked grim, God promised the future was bright.
As much as I would like to call my post-graduation residence my home, it will be neither my final home nor my truest home. Yes, eternal life began when I received salvation, but as long as sin and pain remain a part of my life, and I can labor to tell others about my faith, I am not truly home yet. I am awaiting heaven but am able to invest in the place where I reside for now, knowing that my truest home awaits me. To quote the author of Hebrews:
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.[xi]
[i] Genesis 17:4
[ii] Jeremiah 29:5-7 (ESV, emphasis added)
[iii] Jeremiah 29:10
[iv] ESV Study Bible
[v] Daniel 1:17
[vi] Daniel 6:4 (ESV)
[vii] Colossians 3:23 (ESV, emphasis added)
[viii] Ephesians 2:14
[ix] Daniel 6:26 (ESV)
[x] Jeremiah 29:10-13 (ESV)
[xi] Hebrews 11:13-16 (ESV)
college, eternity, faith, home, love, shalom, UC Berkeley, university, work