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The rich smells and fun sounds of a baseball stadium enliven me. I love the bustle of the crowds hurrying to find their seats. The vendors grilling assorted meats and the echoes of the umpires’ calls are trademarks of our cherished pastime. In my bachelor days, I would often join four buddies after work and we would squash ourselves hurriedly in a car too small for five grown men and speed down to watch America’s team (the Phillies) scratch out a victory.
On one occasion, we took our pseudo-party bus on tour and drove up to New York City to watch the Phillies “battle” the self-destructive Mets (candidly, the Mets rarely put up a semblance of a fight). At the game, the Phillies did what they normally do and pulled some last-minute, come-from-behind magic tricks and snatched away a win in front a packed Queens crowd. Our youthful exuberance trumped our visiting crowd nerves as we jumped, hugged, and screamed–all things which are socially-sanctioned actions for groups of young men at sporting events and political rallies. Rightfully so, the Mets fans surrounding and far outnumbering my group of Phillies faithful were agitated by our antics.
There was no shortage of disparaging remarks hurled toward us, their obvious jealousy and bitterness fueling their frustration. One inebriated member of Mets Nation even took a few threatening steps toward us, launching slurred verbal grenades with each wobbly step. If fandom was a job (oh if it were), the environment at Citi Field would have absolutely been ruled a hostile work environment.
New York City was an unwelcoming and foreign land for Phillies fans. The evening gave me a momentary glimpse into what it must have been like for the people of Israel to be exiled in the historic city of Bablyon. In a much more serious and tragic scenario than the trivial baseball game, the Israelites were in enemy territory. They were held captive by a tyrannical and oppressive regime, slaves to their captors. The opposing fans, the Babylonians, were oppressive and hostile toward the people of Israel, undoubtedly full of insulting remarks, degrading glances and sauntering postures.

It’s this backdrop where God speaks a message to his captive people through his ambassador, Jeremiah:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce…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. (Jeremiah 29:5,7 ESV)

It’s a shocking decree: The slaves were commanded to pray for their captors. To seek the welfare of this foreign city. To invest in real estate and engage in commerce in a land wholly unfamiliar and hostile toward them, a “place of unexpected unacceptable vocation–exiles seeking welfare of others!” as Walter Brueggemann explained. It’s hard to imagine cheering for the Mets at their stadium, but it’s unfathomable to think about life as the enslaved cheering for my enslaver. If God commanded Israel to invest in the welfare of their captive city, it makes me wonder how much he desires for us to love, cherish and invest in our neighborhoods, cities which are far from hostile.