Jeremiah 31:27-34 | Luke 22:19-20
Jeremiah has a reputation as a grumpy, pessimistic sort of chap.
Not entirely unwarranted, either; for he was a prophet of downfall, a prophet of disaster. When the nation was threatened by foreign powers, and the authorities, as authorities will, were trying to keep people’s spirits up, Jeremiah was telling them that the cause was lost, that they would fall and be taken into exile.
But prophesying doom is only half of the Jeremiah story.
For throughout his writings, unheard, perhaps, by those who could not see past what they perceived and treachery and treason, was a promise… “but then…”
And when the darkness that he had so often foretold came, when it became clear that his warnings had been true, that the nation would fall, when desperate hope fell into despair, then Jeremiah brought a promise of hope from God.
The covenant has failed. But I will remake it.
We’ve probably all heard this phrase “a new covenant” often enough for it to have lost much of its bite. Especially, of course, because we hear it in the words of Jesus, at the last supper – “this my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you”. For us, to us, it’s an image full of positive, full of God’s love, full of the offer of life.
But that’s because we don’t place any significant value upon what had gone before, upon what we might call “the old covenant”, but to the people of Jeremiah’s time was just “the covenant”. The covenant was a central piece of what it meant to be the people of God. God had called Abraham and made a covenant with him, had called Moses and given, through him, the law, through Joshua had given them the land, through David a Kingdom, through Solomon the Temple. These were the things that made a Jew a Jew, made Israel Israel.
But the law, the Torah, the way of life, was failing; the land was being taken away; the kingdom had fallen; the Temple was about to be torn down. All the things that the people identified as making them who they were, were lost.
And now Jeremiah comes and says, in effect, we’re going to need a new covenant as well.
Jeremiah’s words were a promise of rebirth, a promise of new life, a promise for the future. But even in the act of declaring that the new would come, he was writing the obiturary for the old.
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. 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.
Jeremiah told the people that the old covenant has failed. Even though, as he said, God took the people by the hand and led them out of Egypt, even though God had been a husband to Israel, the covenant had failed. The people had broken it.
But how would this time be different? How would the new covenant be different from to old, how would it be that this one would work?
This is the covenant, Jeremiah tells us. This is how it will be. This is what will make it different.
I will put my law within them, I will write it on their hearts.
The old covenant was a law in written form, codified, detailed, describing the right way to behave in all the events of day to day life. It was law written to form and protect a society, an objective standard by which behaviour could be judged in the interests of a stable, healthy society.
That is surely no bad thing. Surely we are glad to live in a nation governed by the rule of law, in which rules exist to protect us from one another and our own worst instincts.
Written laws are a great way to run a nation, but not so great when it comes to running a family. Of course, families often have their own clear rules – especially when there are kids around – but those rules are not the heart of things. If obeying the rules ever became the most important part of the life of a family, that would be a family in deep crisis.
At the core of a healthy family lies not a set of rules, but a deeply entwined set of loving relationships. Relationships which, most of the time, don’t need written laws; for they are shaped by the law of love, the law written on the heart.
In the new covenant, Jeremiah says, there will be no need for tablets of stone inscribed with ‘thou shalt not’. It is inscribed within us, grows with us, becomes part of who we are.
Religious observance by obedience to an externally imposed set of rules was never going to work. No moral code, no ethic, no virtue, is ever real until it is internalised, until we do what is right not because we are being told we must but because of who we are. The Good Samaritan doesn’t help the enemy he finds beaten and left for dead because his laws tell him to do so: he does it because he is a man of virtue, a man who could no more leave a fellow human being in need than he could fly to the moon. He does so because the law of love is written on his heart.
But more even than that, religion based on external rules unavoidably sets up hierarchy. Where there are laws, there are those who enforce them, those who interpret them, those who pass judgement. Where there are laws, there are some placed in power over others.
Which is why the second half of Jeremiah’s prophecy is so important – 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. Not, I think, that Jeremiah is speaking against teaching; but he is looking forward to a day when it will no longer be a select few who have the law, who have the spirit of God, who speak on God’s behalf. No longer will there be those who know and teach, and others who listen and accept. They shall all know me, from the least to the greatest. For in that day, when the law of God is written in the heart, all will know God, all will be teachers and all will be learners.
That is the radically egalitarian vision of the New Covenant. A kingdom in which all know God – young or old, female or male, educated or not – a kingdom in which the law of love is written in the heart. A kingdom in which religious status conveys no authority, in which no priest can tell you what you should believe, and no preacher can insist that his reading of the Bible is the only truth.
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.