"Now You Go Behave"

Background and Sermon notes on Jeremiah 31:31-34
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary

This is a beautiful and theologically powerful passage, and it contains numerous themes
and allusions which could work well with a justice message. However, perhaps the first thing to be emphasized in interpreting it is that its reference to “old” and “new” covenants does not refer either to the Old and New Testaments, or to the Eucharistic words of Jesus. It is certainly clear that the Christian Bible compilers had Jeremiah in mind when they separated the two testaments (or testamentum, “covenants”), as did Jesus (or his biographers) at the last supper. But to say, as commentators occasionally have, that Jeremiah was prophesying the division of the Bible into two parts, diminishes the very important message that Jeremiah was in fact trying to convey.[1]

Background to Jeremiah 31
In terms of its background, this section is a part of a larger collection of writings, chs. 30-31, sometimes known as the “Book of Comfort.” There is some debate as to whether portions of this collection (including today’s text) were authored by Jeremiah himself or one of his followers. The reason is that they were written during the latter days of the Babylonian exile and Jeremiah would have been extremely old by that time if he was their author. However, the language and message is very compatible with that of Jeremiah (see the very similar message found in ch. 32:37-41 and 24:7), so if they were in fact composed by a later writer, that writer believed that he or she was writing within Jeremiah’s point of view.[2]  Also, the purpose of this section was to promise hope and a renewal of the covenant to the beleaguered and depressed Hebrew community living in Babylonia, and for our purposes, that message is important regardless of the author.

The New Covenant
In this text Yahweh promises a new day and a new covenant for the exiled houses of Judah and Israel. The previous covenant was based upon their liberation from bondage, “when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.” But they broke that covenant, resulting in their new bondage in Babylonia, and now God is promising to try it again, this time placing it within them and writing it on their hearts.

To illustrate to your parishioners what this offer of a new covenant might have meant theologically to Israel (and to us today), you might reflect with them on the meaning of the original covenant Yahweh made with Moses at Mt. Sinai. It was the central event for all Israelite life and thought, and had a profound impact on later Christian thinking. In it Yahweh promised to liberate the Hebrews from slavery and in return they promised to act like liberated people. That meant two things: worshiping only Yahweh, and treating others in the same manner that they had been treated by God. They were a chosen, liberated people, and their only requirement was that they were to act like it: they should be different from their idolatrous, brutal, oppressive neighbors. This is the basic theological assumption of much of the Hebrew scriptures (including Jeremiah).

Deuteronomy contains a number of statements of this theology. For example, why should you love a stranger? “You shall...love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). After listing things to do in the Sabbatical year (including the remission of debts and slaves, and to “open your hand to the poor and need neighbor in your land”) the Deuteronomist reminds them why: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today” (15:15). Their redemption from slavery was the theological backbone for ethical conduct with the weak and the marginalized:
“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice;
    you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.
Remember that you were a slave in Egypt 
    and the LORD your God redeemed you from there;
therefore I command you to do this” (24:17-18).

“When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall before the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this” (24:22 cf. Deut. 5:6, 15, 10:17-22, 16:12, 26:6-10).
However, as numerous prophetic voices later point out, the Hebrew people repeatedly broke their end of the covenant, following after other gods and oppressing their neighbors.
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness;
      they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan,    to make it prosper,
and they do not defend the rights of the needy.
      Shall I not punish them for these things?
                       says the LORD? (Jer. 5:27b-28)
        [T]hey sell the righteous (or “the innocent”) for silver
             and the needy for a pair of sandals---
        they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
             and push the afflicted out of the way.
                                                            (Amos 2:6-7a)
And in a brutal world, why were these crimes so important? Because God had liberated them and they were supposed to act different.
I brought you up out of the land of Egypt,
      and led you forty years in the wilderness
to possess the land of the Amorites.
      And I raised up some of your children to be prophets
and some of your youths to be nazirites (priests).
      Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel?
                                      says the LORD.
                                                                    (Amos 2:10-11)

To the Israelites, the clear result of breaking the covenant was punishment and a return to bondage in Babylonia, which for them became a new “Egypt.”
This (the exile) occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They had worshiped other gods and walked in the customs of the nations....(2 Kings 17:7-8a. Cf. 2 Kings 21:14-15, 23:26-27, 24:3-4).

In his famous “Temple Sermon,” Jeremiah paraphrases the “if...then” nature of the covenant:
...[I]f you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. (Jer 7:5-7)

But, of course, they did not hold up their end of the covenant.
...[Y]ou steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house which is called by my name, and say, “we are safe!”---only to go on doing all of these abominations. [Therefore] I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste. (Jer. 7:9-10, 34)

With that background, we can return now to chapter 31, and understand how important this “new” covenant was to be. God had liberated them from slavery and delivered them to a promised land so that they would be different from their neighbors. They would create a community of justice in which the weak (widows, orphans, resident aliens, and “the poor”) would be cared for. Deuteronomy 15, Exodus 12, and Leviticus 25 (the latter containing the Jubilee laws) describe a kingdom with radically just values, the values of a world as God intended it. Slavery of your neighbors (which in Israel was almost always caused by indebtedness) would be banned. Slavery of foreigners would be canceled after seven years. Aid would be given to neighbors in need, and one was not allowed to give aid to a friend or family member in need in such a way as to turn a profit. But instead of this Jubilee kingdom, the Israelites evolved into a society of economic exploitation and oppression rivaling that of their neighbors.  It is one of the interesting ironies of biblical history that the Jubilee laws of Leviticus were some of the most radically egalitarian of any ancient society, and perhaps because of that, there is not one single example in or out of the Bible of the powers that be ever allowing those laws to be enacted.

On Their Hearts
The result of all of this for Jeremiah (and others) was that God responded to their violation of the covenant by delivering them into a second slavery, this time in Babylonia. In 597, with the surrender of Jehoiachin of Judah, and again in 587, with the fall of Jerusalem itself, the wealthy, the powerful, and the royalty of Israel were all deported to Babylon for almost fifty years. This geopolitical event was, according to Jeremiah and other theologians of the period, a direct result of their acts of oppressing the poor and worshiping idols: the two major “planks” of the violated covenant. But now, says Jeremiah, in spite of their sin, God would give them a second chance, a second opportunity to bring about the world that God intended. God was now promising to make available for them a new covenant. It would not be new in terms of content—thetorah would still be its basis (Jer. 31:33)—but in terms of place. This new covenant which would be made available to them would not be imposed upon them from the outside, but would be embedded “within them,” “on their hearts” (lêb or “in their center”).  It is a bit like the emotions of a cat. There are few things in creation that are less responsive than a cat who does not give a damn whether you live or die.  And there are few animals more loving than a cat who wants to show affection. The difference is a matter of the will from the inside, certainly not a will imposed by a cat’s “owner” from the outside.

The heart, for Jeremiah, is the seat of the will. It was not a geographical location, but a volitional one. When the heart was evil, one turned from God and did evil. When the heart was good, one turned to God and did good. But according to Jeremiah the hearts of the people of Israel had become evil. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (17:9).
[T]his people has a stubborn and rebellious heart;
       they have turned aside and gone away.
they do not say in their hearts,
             let us fear the LORD our God,
        who gives rain in its season,
             the autumn rain and the spring rain,
        and keeps for us
             the weeks appointed for the harvest. (5:23-24)

In a prophesy calling upon the people of Jerusalem to repent he appeals to them to “wash your heart clean of wickedness so that you may be saved” (4:14 a). In a passage that anticipates the one for today, Yahweh makes the promise to the exiles that “I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart. (24:7. Cf. also 3:17; 7:24; 9:14; 11:8; 13:10; 16:12; 17:1; 18:12; 23:17).

A sermon on this passage that tried to be honest to its justice underpinnings could be based solely on the notion of the ways in which we have broken the covenant of worship toward God and towards others. The central ethical principle of the Hebrew Scriptures, and echoed in Christian scriptures, is that God has liberated (saved, redeemed) us and now we are supposed to liberate and redeem others. Seldom heard in church sermons, even on this very passage, is that at its core, what it means to be a religious person is to liberate slaves. And that means slaves of psychic demons in abusive homes, and it means physical demons of countries enmeshed in the crippling demands of top down elitist international trade laws that impoverish families and starve children. But God, in spite of our perpetual inclination to break the covenant, comes to us in these words of Jeremiah and offers us a second (and third and fourth) chance. “Renew the covenant, and have it written on your hearts, where it will emanate out from you rather than being imposed from outside onto you.” God is always calling us back to the basics of worship and justice. God is always offering us a chance to come home from Babylon. It is up to us to make the decision to make the journey.

Knowledge of God
According to Jeremiah, for those who respond to this new covenant written on the heart, two radical things will occur. First they will no longer need to learn of God from others, for they will now “know the LORD” from the inside, “from the least of them to the greatest” (31:34b). An important point to make here is that for Jeremiah, to know the LORD, is not a mere act of religious education. It isn’t a list of facts that one can memorize for confirmation class (you do, however, have kids memorize things in Confirmation class don’t you?). For Jeremiah to know God is to do acts of justice. When criticizing King Jehoiakim, he compares his wicked reign with the good one of his father Josiah. He first attacks him for using slave labor to build himself a palace during a time of war and tremendous deprivation.

Woe to him (Jehoiakim) who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages...
                                                                                                                   (Jeremiah 22:13)

In the ancient world there were typically two ways that one acquired a slave: as a captive during war, and through loaning money to the poor at usurious rates and then foreclosing on their freedom when they could not pay up (cf. Nehemiah 5:1-13; Matthew 18:21-35 (the parable of the Unforgiving Slave). It’s interesting that since Israel seldom won a war, they had very few military slaves, but a crisis-level number of debt slaves, especially during times of economic distress. Therefore, when both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures refer to a “slave,” it is almost always synonymous with “debtor.” Someone who has lost control of their lives due to a broken and oppressive economic system.

So, among other things, Jeremiah is criticizing Jehoiakim for enslaving the poor for their debts and then using them to build a first world-style house for himself. It is being built with unrighteousness and injustice. But then he goes on to compare Jehoiakim with his father, Josiah:
He (Josiah) judged the cause of the poor and needy;
    then it was well.
Is this not to know me?                                                     
    says the LORD.
But your eyes and heart (Jehoiakim’s)
    are only on your dishonest gain,       
for shedding innocent blood;     
    and for practicing oppression and violence.
                                          (Jer. 22:16-17 Italics added)

Another direction for your sermon could be based on the justice demands of the notion of the “knowledge of God.” Walter Brueggemann, commenting on this passage, argues that one cannot know God without being attentive to the needs of the poor and the weak. And he says it is not that one is derived intellectually from the other, “rather, the two are synonymous. One could scarcely imagine a more radical and subversive theological claim.”[3] This is very similar to the claims about loving God in the New Testament. See for example the blunt words of 1 John 4:20-21: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.”

Hosea, a contemporary of Jeremiah, reports that when “there is no knowledge of God in the land, swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish....” (4:1b-3a). The Peruvian theologian Gustavo GutiĆ©rrez makes the point that God is encountered in concrete acts of justice an mercy to others. So if justice is not present, then God is not present. “To know Yahweh...is to establish just relationships among persons, it is to recognize the rights of the poor. The God of Biblical revelation is known through interhuman justice. When justice does not exist, God is not known; God is absent.”[4]  Robert McAfee Brown, in a sermon on a related passage in Jeremiah, gives these examples of the same point:
So, to know God might mean working in a political party to overthrow a modern Jehoiakim. It might mean saying no to economic or religious structures that provide privileges for the rich at the expense of the poor. It might mean joining a labor union in areas where labor unions are outlawed, since in no other way would the poor be able to gain enough power to demand just working conditions and just wages.[5]

Forgive Their Iniquity
The second thing which will happen to those who respond to the new covenant is that they will receive forgiveness. “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (v. 34c cf. 1 Kings 8:46-53). The phrase hangs on the key introductory word, ki, “because.” All of the above will happen because I forgive their iniquity. Everything in the new covenant and all sense of beginning again anew depends entirely on Yahweh’s forgiveness. Accept it and a new life opens up. Reject it and you have rejected the covenant itself.[6]

It’s probably too great a leap to move straight from God’s forgiveness of the iniquity of the Babylonian captives to debt and poverty in the developing world, but it is true that by the time of Jesus the words “debt” and “sin” had become almost synonymous (consider the interchangeability of the words debts and sins in the “Lord’s Prayer”). However, there are two elements in Yahweh’s forgiveness which at least touch on it. 

Two things about Forgiveness
First, true forgiveness will “remember their sin no more.” True forgiveness does not cover up the past, but lets it go. The misguided (even “sinful”) loans of the 1970s which caused the wretched indebted conditions of the 1980s were caused by negotiations between wealthy people in both the developed and undeveloped countries. But today it is only people in the developing world who are being asked to pay for those sins. To be more precise, it is the poor of the third world who see money for public education, healthcare, and roads being spent on repaying loans made to their grandparents thirty-five years ago, who are paying for the sins. The rich can afford private health care and private education, and always arrange to have the remaining, tiny, infrastructure budgets spent on their communities.

There are also some similarities closer to home in the causes of the gradual crumbling we are experiencing in the US economy. Again, there is not an exact parallel, but there are some threads that can be found in both stories and could at least be mentioned in a sermon on this text. As most of us are aware, for the first two hundred years of US history, productivity and wealth went up at roughly the same rate for all income brackets. The poor were poorer, but their incomes still rose when productivity rose. But starting gradually in the late seventies and explosively in the eighties, the link between income and productivity came uncoupled. Productivity continued to rise, but the income from it went almost exclusively to the wealthy. Incomes for the middle class stagnated and for the poor they actually went down, and incomes for the wealthy skyrocketed. Not often mentioned in news reports on this topic was that as middle-class incomes stayed flat, costs of education, healthcare, and Social Security continued to rise. So, in terms of actual buying power, the incomes of almost every person in modern America has declined for over thirty years. A study recently found that wages for young worker have been dropping twice as fast as for older workers, which does not bode well for the future of the nation as a whole.[8] 

These changes, just like in Ancient Israel, were planned and not accidental. Increasingly tax cuts and favorable trade laws for wealthy families and corporations (which encourage moving jobs to poorer countries) redistributed wealth upward and created an increasingly unstable economy. In the nineties, people increasingly went into debt to keep up an appearance of being middle class while Wall Street banking and investment firms took their mortgage money and gambled with it internationally as though it was their own, ultimately causing the crash of the late 2000s that destroyed a generation of lives and families and futures in America, and it ricocheted throughout the world (the disease of greed is not unique to the US). Everybody lost something, but the Bush and Obama bailouts and tax cuts allowed the very richest people in America to regain their wealth and income within two to three years, while the middle and bottom are still struggling with stagnating and declining incomes. Today, cutting taxes for the wealthy seems so normal that the 2017 tax cuts passed with almost no protest or outcry.

It's telling to note that even after years of economic growth under the Obama administration, salaries were the last thing to grow. It is good that people are beginning to return to work, but by 2017, they finally returned to the same income (adjusted for inflation) that they had back in 2006 and 7.  

This (overly abbreviated) story is one that Jeremiah would find great resonance in and sympathy for.

The second thing about true forgiveness is that it may not redistribute wealth, but it does redistribute power.
[7] A snarky statement of a new “Golden Rule” might be, “the one has the gold gets to make the rules.” This is uncannily true in the workings of such financial institutions as the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, that have the power to set global rules for finance and trade and then force developing countries to comply, even if it means impoverishing their own people to do so. In true forgiveness, the one who truly forgives, forgets the past and shares the gold. Jesus was despised by the power brokers who were his contemporaries because he understood this. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).

Now Behave
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once told a story of teaching a confirmation class when he was younger, in which he outlined the meaning of the Mosaic Covenant. He went step by step through it, explaining the promise of God, that God would rescue the Hebrew people from slavery and that they would worship only God and then act in ways that showed themselves to be liberated people. And he tried to illustrate for the kids how that principle also showed up in the teaching of Jesus later on. When finished, to see if he had gotten the message across, he asked them to tell him what he had just said. He got a variety of attempts, some close some not. Then one little boy raised his hand and put it better than any theologian could have. He said (quoting God), “I saved your butts, so now you go behave.”

[1]A case strongly made by Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, revised), pp. 291-295.
[2] Gerhard Von Rad sees these two passages as different versions of the same message delivered on separate occasions, and therefore evidence that both are from Jeremiah. The Message of the Prophets, tr. D.M.G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Row: 1965), p. 181.
[3] Brueggemann, “Covenant as a Subversive Paradigm,” A Social Reading of the Old Testament: Prophetic Approaches to Israel's Communal Life (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress: 1994), p. 49.
[4] A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, tr. Sr. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (New York: Maryknoll: 1988, revised ed.), p. 110-111.
[5] Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), p. 68.
[6] Brueggemann, Jeremiah, p. 294. Italics added.
[7] See Brueggemann, “Covenant as a Subversive Paradigm,” p. 50, for more on this.
[8] Heidi Shierholz, Hilary Wething, and Natalie Sabadish, The Class of 2012: Labor market for young graduates remains grim, Economic Policy Institute, May 3, 2012 (http://www.epi.org/publication/bp340-labor-market-young-graduates).