Jeremiah’s continuing message from today’s lectionary highlights a new relation between God and the Jewish people (Jeremiah 31:27-34). Jeremiah reflects on his understanding about what God wants from the people. “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” (Jeremiah 31: 31). They captive Jewish people were to continue living, while also letting the old ways die in the wake of a new covenant.
Okay, let’s back-up a bit and provide some cultural context. The situation in Jeremiah’s day was that the Jewish people had been taken prisoner to live in the conquerors’ land of Babylon. Read today’s section from Jeremiah and you can sense that the captivity in Babylon aroused deep reflection. The comforting thought is that God listens to the cries of the people and responds through Jeremiah’s message. But all is not normal, predictable or convenient: God is advocating fundamental changes going forward.
Jeremiah shares God’s desire that there be a new way for a new day. No longer will a debilitating list of ritual rules be sufficient for the Jewish religion. This is big! The old Jewish Law had become stale, dysfunctional and subject to incessant misuse by a religious bureaucracy intent on preserving power and privilege more than love and truth.
Examine the history of religion and you’ll notice how administrative and bureaucratic forces tend to undermine a religion’s spiritual core. Through institutionalization, the founders’ message becomes corrupted and co-opted by politicians and theologians who systematize and organize faith to the point of making it more of a burden than a blessing. This is, in today’s language, what Jeremiah was calling attention to.
Jeremiah’s voice still cries out to us today. Want a monumental sea-change? Here it is, and of all places in the Old Testament among the later prophets, those who knew that rules are insufficient for ensuring that a religion remains vibrant and more helpful than hurtful. Sure, rules and laws are necessary to avoid anarchy and also to restrain evil forces. Rules can provide a supportive, even necessary framework as a basis for secular society. But as far as keeping faith alive and well, it takes far more than law-based coercion and fear to sustain a healthy personal spirituality.
As Christians, we assert that we, too, are inheritors of a new covenant (the one emphasized by Yeshua bar Joseph—aka Jesus the son of Joseph and otherwise known as Jesus [the] Christ). Jesusin the New Testament based his gospel message on love, and not upon an endless plying of ruinous ritual rules. Ultimately it was the religious establishment that convinced the Romans to preside over Jesus’ execution. One of the lessons here is to never underestimate the power of the guardians of the status quo. In our daily lives we encounter persons whose opposition to change is so entrenched that it seems as if they’d rather put themselves and others through hell on earth rather than embrace a new vision.
Undoubtedly, Jeremiah’s message rings true for us as much as for the ancient audience. We, like the people of old, can choose to listen to what God wants and we can be willing to make changes, even epic ones. In recreating ourselves we destroy the shackles of bondage to the comfortable and convenient habits of thinking and acting. We know that our covenant of love and truth is what God desires for us and from us. Therefore, we resist the call to cling slavishly to stale traditions that drain the life blood out of our spiritual lives. Rather, we can open our hearts and minds to the dynamic power of the Spirit, transforming us like a resuscitating breeze.
Our faith should not consist primarily about rules, sacrifices or mechanical rituals. If it were supposed to be that way, then we’d still be living under the pall of the Old Testament (which, regrettably, many Christians still attempt to do). Let us join together as the liberated children of God, the progeny born of a New Testament, a new covenant. Our lives emanate from a living God whose presence radiates each time we receive and share love and truth. Are you ready to live and let die? Are you ready to overcome both the who and the what holding you back? Are you ready to unleash the power of God within you?