Sunday, August 11, 2013

Tu et vous. Usted y ustedes. You and y'all.

We have a defect in Standard American English--we don't differentiate between the singular form of the second person (you) and the plural form of the second person (you). Most of the time we automatically know the difference. If someone approaches a group of people and says, "Hey! Do you want to go out for pizza?", we assume the question is for the entire group. If someone wants to address one person in the group, the person would use an individual's name. For example, "Erin, did you really post that blog about questioning God's promises?"

Some questions--and statements--are meant for the group, and some questions--and statements--are meant for individuals. Some languages, like French and Spanish, use different forms of the word "you" to designate singular and plural. If you live somewhere in the southern portion of the United States, you might differentiate singular and plural by saying "you" or "y'all," which is a contraction for "you all."

The rest of us tell the difference by looking at the context.
If "you" is in spoken form, how many people are in the room. Has a name been used to narrow the focus?

And if the word "you," is written, it is important to look at what was written before and what was written afterward.  That way we can tell.

And that brings me to Jeremiah 29:11, the verse author Chris Blumhofer has called the "most misused verse in the Bible." I don't know if that is actually true, but I do know that I start listening very carefully when I hear someone quote this verse:
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future."
This sounds like a great promise. I don't have to worry. Everything's going to work out well--really well, actually. Everything I do will prosper. I will not be harmed. So I can have hope.

The thing is, if we look at this verse all by itself, we miss the fact that "you" does not reference an individual, but a group of individuals, the people of Israel, who have just been exiled out of Jerusalem.

Thomas Turner, of the International Justice Mission, writes,
Like any author worth his salt, the writer in Jeremiah begins by stating the subject of the passage: "This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon . . ." (Jeremiah 29:4).
This verse, quoted to countless individuals who are struggling with vocation or discerning God's will, is not written to individuals at all. This passage is written to a whole group of people--an entire nation. for all the grammarians out there, the "you" in Jeremiah 29:11 isn't singular, it's plural. 
Additionally, if we fail to look at the verse in context, we miss the fact that Jeremiah has just given the people a word from that Lord--they will be in exile for seventy years.  
Seventy years.

That means most of individuals listening to Jeremiah will never return to Israel. The future--the hope--the prosperity--are for the people of God as a whole, as a community.

And so this "you" extends beyond the group of people listening--to a community of people not even born yet.

That's pretty much the opposite of the way we normally interpret this verse.

Most of the time we gravitate toward interpreting Scripture individualistically.  That's natural.  We focus on the things that matter most to us as individuals.  We think about things that will benefit us individually.

And while it is true that God sees each of us uniquely, he sees even a sparrow fall to the ground and he can count the hairs on our head, it is also true that God has a kingdom mentality.  And he does what's best for his kingdom.

Think about Hebrews 11.  This is the passage that celebrates people who lived by faith. Some of them saw pieces of God's promises fulfilled. But none of them saw everything.  Some of them suffered and died for their faith.

The writer of Hebrews says these people "died in faith without receiving the full promises, although they say the fulfillment as though from a distance." They did it for us, so we could experience the promises of God.

Jeremiah 29:11 was written for a specific group of people at a specific period of time, and Turner asks whether or not it applies to us currently, if it is a promise we can cling to today.  Based on Hebrews 11, I believe it does.

Turner asserts that this verse does not "apply to isolated individuals or to a broad community." Rather, it "applies to both, functioning as one . . . worshiping God together, hoping for a future redemption."

Turner references the book  Beyond Foundationalism by Stanley Grenz and John Franke, who explain that this promise "turns the gaze of its members toward the future," a future that unites a community through prayer and worship.  This is a collective future, one shared by generations and that in this way, "the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 is bigger than any one of us--and far better."

I agree.
This verse is bigger than any one person. It is for all of us together. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

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