Even though this ancient prophetic speech is hardly even comprehensible when severed from its historical context, Jeremiah’s “word” is still worth hearing today. First, the message remains a vital reminder of the purpose of the biblical sabbatical tradition. Second, the passage speaks forcefully of the ways in which the powerful and privileged can turn even the most just laws into tools of oppression. Third, to a culture that has bent the knee to the idol of “freedom,” Jeremiah’s message contains an important word about the limits of absolute freedom.
One relevant word that Jer 34 contains for the church today has to do with the meaning and purpose of the Sabbath commandment and the biblical sabbatical tradition. Most Christians—perhaps especially most pastors—think of the commandment to “remember the Sabbath day” primarily as a command to attend worship and to refrain from work and/or recreation on the Sabbath. While the Old Testament does contain warrants for the view that the Sabbath is for the purpose of worship and rest from work, this predominant view obscures that the Sabbath commandment at heart has to do with mercy and justice. As the motive clause in the Deuteronomic version of the commandment makes clear, the Sabbath is concerned that even slaves and beasts of burden be granted a release from the endless cycle of work. Note the emphasis in Deut 5:12-15 on the rights of slaves and how the passage links the memory of the Israelite’s slavery with how they treat their own slaves:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut 5:12-15, emphasis added)
A FREEDOM THAT IS NO FREEDOM
Jeremiah’s ancient judgment speech also speaks a word of warning to our modern culture, which has made a false god out of the concept of freedom. As a friend of mine likes to say, “If you want to stump an American, ask, ‘What is freedom for?’” I take his point to be that freedom is not itself an absolute good. Or, to use an Aristotelian category, freedom is not “an end in and of itself.” Rather freedom is an intermediate good; it is part of a larger web of relationships and obligation. Freedom exists in order to serve other good goals.
The Judeans sinned against both God and neighbor by breaking the covenant they had made to release their slaves. In doing so, they abrogated the covenant that they had made with God. The result was that they were now free: free from obligation to God and free from obligation to their neighbor. But they were also free from God’s care, God’s compassion, God’s mercy, and God’s commitment to them. In Patrick Miller’s harrowing phrase, the Judeans had forced upon their slaves “a freedom that is no freedom.”13 As has been argued, they had cast off their slaves when it was inconvenient to feed and provide for them. Now God was granting them a reciprocal form of freedom: freedom from the steadfast love that God had pledged to them as part of the covenant. The tight correlation between freedom and covenant—both in Jer 34 and in the discussion here—is not accidental. Freedom is not truly freedom when it severs us from our covenantal relationships with God or neighbor. For example, to be free in a romantic or sexual relationship is not to be uncommitted with one’s options permanently open. On the contrary, to be free in such a relationship is to be a fully committed partner in amarital covenant.
One way to track how we are thinking about freedom is to be alert to the implied prepositions that follow the word freedom. There is “freedom from,” “freedom unto,” and “freedom for.” Modern people are old pros at thinking about “freedom from”—freedom from oppression, authority, fear, and so on. We are less adept at thinking about “freedom unto.” To be set free can mean to be cast forth into an indifferent world. The Judeans had released their slaves “unto” the cold realities of a city under siege. Their reward was a reciprocal release unto the realities of the Babylonian exile. When modern people trumpet freedom for themselves and others, we need to be aware of the harsh realities unto which we are allowing our neighbors to be freed. Jer 34 begs us to ask whether our covenantal responsibilities to our neighbors have been met if we simply allow them this sort of indifferent freedom. Modern people are even less likely to think about “freedom for.” As St. Paul writes in Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set you free” (5:1a). But later St. Paul adds, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (5:13). I take Paul’s point to be that Christian freedom is never merely freedom from, it is always freedom for: freedom for the neighbor.
One of the implications of Jer 34 is the paradoxical truth that freedom is only liberating when it also binds a person to his or her neighbor. Genuine freedom does not consist of the absence of responsibility. Rather, genuine freedom exists only within the context of mutual responsibility to the neighbor. To borrow the language of Martin Luther, we are only the “perfectly free lord of all” when we are simultaneously the “perfectly dutiful servant of all.”14 It is for such a freedom as this that the Son of God died. And if the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.
ROLF JACOBSON is assistant professor of religion at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, Minnesota