Most people only know of Jeremiah 29 as the source of that nice inspirational quote where God says, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Yes, that’s true, but consider the context. God is speaking to Israelite exiles in Babylon, who are captives in enemy territory. They did not want to be there; they wanted to go home to Israel. And what is God’s call to them? Jeremiah 29:5 and following: Build houses. Settle down. Plant gardens. Have kids. Invest in this local community. Call it home, even if you don’t want to be here. Make it your own. And then verse 7 – Seek the welfare of the city, because in its welfare you will find your welfare. Seek the peace and prosperity of the city. If it prospers, you too will prosper. Seek the shalom of the city. In its shalom, you will find your shalom.
This is God’s call to suburban Christians and churches – seek the welfare of the city, both your individual local suburb as well as your larger metropolitan area. Whether you think suburbia is paradise or exile, if you’re in the suburbs, call it your home, commit yourself to it, invest in it. Seek the welfare of the suburbs. Minister to the suburbs as well as from them to the world around it.
A key word for me in all this is “shalom” – peace, wholeness, well-being, not just the absence of conflict but a portrait of how God intended life to be. Right relationships between us and God, us and other people, our communities, our environment. I’ve appreciated Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann on this. Usually when we think of the gospel, we think in terms of deliverance, rescue, salvation from peril. And Brueggemann would say yes, that’s part of it. But that’s not all of it. Bruggemann says that there are actually two sides of the gospel of shalom, especially in the Old Testament. He talks about two different kinds of shalom – shalom for the haves, and shalom for the have-nots.
We’re more familiar with shalom for the have-nots, for the poor, the oppressed, the slaves in need of God’s deliverance. This is the exodus tradition and the prophetic tradition. These parts of the Old Testament narrative were about and addressed to people in peril – slaves in Egypt, those under attack from hostile foreigners, the poor, the desperate. For these, the have-nots, God has a gospel of salvation and deliverance. He is the God who rescues us from peril. When God saves us from slavery, sin and death, that’s salvation. That’s shalom.
But that’s not all. The other tradition, Brueggemann says, is the stewardship tradition. This is the gospel for the haves, the affluent, the wealthy. It is the parts of the Hebrew narrative when people were not at war, when they were not in immediate peril or dire straits. We see this during the united monarchy period, and it’s also a major theme of the wisdom literature, especially the book of Proverbs. And most significantly, it's in the Genesis creation mandate, before the fall. It is creational. After the fall, we needed deliverance and rescue. But before the fall, when things were as God intended them to be in his original shalom, God called us to this stewardship tradition. It’s the tradition that focuses not on the need for a deliverer, but the need for a wise manager, the good steward, the just king who will manage the kingdom’s resources wisely so that all in the kingdom may flourish. This is the gospel of stewardship and management – God calls the haves to steward their wealth so that the have-nots may experience this flourishing, this wholeness, this celebration, this shalom.
They’re two sides of the same coin. The gospel for both the poor and the rich. The poor and oppressed need to hear God’s word of salvation and rescue. The rich and well-off need to hear God’s word of stewardship and disposal of resources. (And of course it is also true that the materially poor may be spiritually rich, and the materially rich are often spiritually poor, so deliverance and stewardship run both ways.) We’ve all heard the saying about God comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Brueggemann would say that a biblical theology of shalom is a gospel of deliverance for the oppressed and stewardship for the blessed.
Here’s an example of these two sides of the coin. Think about police officers, law enforcement and firefighters. Sometimes they do the work of deliverance, rescuing people from immediate peril. But most of the time they are doing the work of crime prevention and fire prevention. That’s the work of wise management and promoting community shalom. Suburban churches can do the same thing. Sometimes we do ministries of deliverance – rescuing people from sin, addiction, self-destructive habits and so on. Other times we invite people into the work of stewardship and blessing others. Suburban people can participate in the kingdom either way.