Covenant of the Heart - Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5B (Jeremiah 31)



31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
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                Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant that God will make with Israel and Judah. It won’t be a covenant written on stone. It will be a covenant written on the heart. Christians have embraced Jeremiah’s message of the New Covenant, believing that this promise was fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Paul’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (the earliest version of that institution), we hear Jesus declare: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25; see Lk. 22:20).  In the Book of Hebrews, which interprets the ministry of Jesus in the light of Jewish precedent, we see several references to the New Covenant, with the emphasis being on the way in which this new covenant replaces the earlier covenant. So, consider this word: “For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.  Where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established” (Heb. 9:15-16). It is this reference in 1 Corinthians and the accompanying references in Hebrews that lead to the labeling of the Christian-specific portion of the Bible as the “New Testament.” It is within the pages of the Christian portion of the Bible, that Christians have seen themselves encountering the one who writes the new covenant on hearts rather than stone.

While the Christian embrace of Jeremiah 31 is understandable, it is unfortunate that too often this has led to replacement theories, in which Christianity replaces Judaism as God’s covenant people. We only need to the book of Hebrews to find the seeds of this belief. I believe that Jeremiah 31 speaks to the covenant Jesus establishes, but not in a way that replaces Judaism as the Covenant people. For Jeremiah, this message is spoken to people heading into exile, offering them hope of a new future. The message Jeremiah wants to deliver is God’s declaration to Judah and Israel: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God’s covenant, which will be written on the hearts of the people, creates their identity as the people of God.

                We hear this word from Jeremiah as an expression of the Lenten journey. In the readings from the Hebrew Bible, as we have encountered them to this point, the focus has been on the covenants God makes with Noah (Genesis 9), Abraham (Genesis 17), and with Moses and the people of Israel at Sinai (Exodus 20). The reading from Numbers 21 for the fourth Sunday of Lent simply reinforced this covenant relationship, by reminding the people that they have fallen short of expectations. Each of these readings reminds us that God is a covenant making God. These covenants may take different forms, but they build upon each other. The first covenant was made in unilateral form. God simply promised not to destroy the earth with a flood ever again. The second covenant was narrower in focus, as God formed a people through Abraham and Sarah, who would possess the land and produce descendants who would become a great nation. The third covenant, the one made at Sinai, provided parameters for that relationship. The commandments serve as the stipulations upon which the relationship revolves. Now, we hear word of a fourth covenant, which would be written on hearts rather than stone. With this new covenant the rules/stipulations would no longer need to be taught, because they will have been internalized. The question is, what is God’s covenant with we who are grafted into the covenant through Christ?

                To understand this word about the new covenant that is written upon hearts rather than stone requires some knowledge of Jeremiah. It is clear from reading the book Jeremiah in its entirety that not everyone liked him or his message. He faced stiff opposition from the government and from the people. That might be because he could offer stern rebukes. The reason he courted opposition is that Jeremiah spoke out against the king and warned against the flatteries of the false prophets. But he also could speak a word of hope. That is what hear in Jeremiah 31. Israel will face exile, and in Jeremiah’s mind this is due to their disobedience. They failed to follow the covenant stipulations established at Sinai. They will suffer as a result, but there is good news for Judah and Israel.

                The covenant God makes at Sinai has explicit requirements, but this covenant seems to lack them. At least they’re not laid out in explicit form. Perhaps this is because they are internalized. While earlier covenants were to be taught and passed on from generation to generation, this covenant and its implications need not be taught. Everyone knows God, so teaching is irrelevant to this covenant. At the same time there will be no more sin. As Jon Berquist notes, this has a utopian feel, because “it appears that humanity will always need instruction, in any foreseeable future.” Not only is utopian in this fashion, but it is also in its universality, because it includes everyone from the least to the greatest. Berquist writes: “knowledge of God becomes universal, removing distinctions of class or privilege” [Feasting on the Word, p. 125]. 

Rabbi Barry Schwartz notes that these words of hope, speak to the premise that as long as there is life, there is hope. This sense of hope maybe be what has “enabled the Jewish people to survive the near constant travails of its three-thousand-year history.” So, “like the ancient prophet Jeremiah, the Jewish people faced calamity and weathered adversity confident in the knowledge that their mission and destiny would endure. One might call this ‘purpose-driven hope’” [Path of the Prophets, pp. 144-145].

The question is, should this “purpose-driven hope” apply to Christians as well? As we ponder that question, we also to ask whether we have reached that place where we no longer need to be taught, or are we moving in that direction? If we understand the institution of the Table, to be a sign of this covenant that God makes with God’s people in Christ, how might our gathering at the table reflect this “purpose-driven hope?”

                 
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