Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B
(Proper 24, Year C)
Rev. Dr. Stan G. B. Duncan
Background to Jeremiah 31
This is a beautiful and theologically powerful passage, and it contains numerous themes and allusions which could work well with a Jubilee message for the day. 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 at least his biographers) at the last supper. But to say, as commentators across the centuries often have, that Jeremiah was prophesying the division of the Bible into old and new testaments, or that the words of Jesus did that, is to diminish the very important (and Jewish) message that Jeremiah was in fact trying to convey.
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” or “Book of Consolation.” 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. 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 Jeremiah has Yahweh promise both a new day and a new covenant for the exiled houses of
The day that he refers to was the “Day
of the LORD (or Yahweh),”
a concept philosophically rooted in the Sabbath Year and the Jubilee Year. As
noted in our earlier discussion of the background of the Jubilee, most scholars
agree that the powers-that-be never allowed the radical Jubilee to be enacted.
Instead it went underground and emerged as a vision and a dream of an eschatological
“day” when God’s will, God’s realm, would finally be present or made manifest
on earth. And though the actual word “Jubilee” was never used after it occurred
in Leviticus (perhaps out of fear of reprisals by wealthy landowners and Royalty)
it emerged time and again in coded language such as the “day” or “age” or
“year” of Yahweh. In its earliest usage, the “day of Yahweh” evidently carried
hopeful Jubilee themes of the time when debts
would be canceled, slaves freed, stolen land was returned, and all of creation would
revert back to its original owner (and ultimately to God). However, probably
beginning with Amos, some 150 years earlier than the time of Jeremiah, the expression
came to mean a time of Yahweh’s terrible judgment. Here in Amos 5:18-20 he strongly
condemns those who are looking forward to the day as a time in which God would
rescue them and reward them with good things: Israel
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light…
as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
Some scholars believe that before Amos the people of
the Day of Yahweh to contain both positive hopeful redemptive aspects and harsh
judgmental ones here espoused by Amos, but that in their own vanity, they
assumed that the redemption would go to them and the punishment would go to
their enemies. And that Amos only “balanced” the concept by saying that God’s
justice and punishment applies to all of creation, including you who think of
yourselves as God’s righteous, chosen people. Israel
In any case, in this passage, for the first time in generations, Jeremiah pulls the concept of the day back to its positive, hopeful roots. Here in the “Book of Consolation” (chapters 30-31), for the first time in generations the image is presented as the time of God’s favor, the time of rescue and redemption.
It’s interesting that in the Isaiah 61 Jubilee passage, which we will discuss in more detail below, Isaiah not only links the coming Jubilee to the day of the LORD, but—in case anyone might misunderstand—he expands the term by calling it “the year of the LORD’s favor.”
The new covenant that Jeremiah offers refers back to that which was forged between Yahweh and the Hebrew people in their liberation from bondage, “when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the
.” But the issue
of the day was that they broke that covenant, resulting in their new bondage in
of Egypt 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
(and to us today), you might reflect with them on the meaning of the original
covenant Yahweh made with Moses at . It was the central
event for all Israelite life and thought in what we know of as the Old Testament,
and had a profound impact on Christian thinking in the New. 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
to live lives that were different
from those of the other nations. 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 neighbors. This is the basic theological
assumption of much of the Hebrew scriptures (including Jeremiah). Mt.
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
(Deuteronomy 10:19). In Chapter 15 there are a number of commandments for the
Sabbatical year, which includes the remission of debts and slaves, and commands
to “not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor,” and to
“open your hand to the poor and need neighbor in your land.” Following that, the
Deuteronomist reminds them why they should do these things: “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 land
and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command
you too do this” (24:17-18). “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do
not glean what is left; it shall be for 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). Egypt
However, as numerous prophetic voices 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
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
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 “
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 “
Jeremiah paraphrases the “if... then” nature of the covenant: Temple Sermon
...[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 ;
for the land shall become a waste. (Jer. 7:9-10, 34) Jerusalem
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 of which 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
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 the laws to be enacted. Israel
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
597, with the surrender of Jehoiachin of Judah, and again in 587, with the fall
of Jerusalem itself, the wealthy, the powerful,
and the royal families of Israel
were all deported to
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—the torah 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 “within them,” “on their hearts” (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. Babylon
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
evil. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who
can understand it?” (17:9). Israel
[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
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). Jerusalem
A Jubilee sermon could be based solely on the notion of the ways in which we have broken the covenant of worship toward God and justice toward others. The central ethical principle of the Hebrew Scriptures and echoed in the Christian scriptures is that God has liberated (saved, redeemed) us and now we should liberate and redeem others. 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 so enmeshed in the depths of debt repayments that their children starve and die in infancy. 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
It is up to us to make the decision to make the journey. Babylon
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...
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 for a sermon that touches on the brutality of debt burdens around the world, 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.” So, among other things, Jeremiah is criticizing Jehoiakim for enslaving the poor for their debts and then using them to build a palatial home for him. It is being built with unrighteousness and injustice. By contrast, he then compares 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)
A Jubilee 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.” 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 Gutiérrez 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.” 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.
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.
It’s probably too great a leap to move straight from God’s forgiveness of the iniquity of the Babylonian captives to the forgiveness of debts in the third world, though it is true that by the time of Jesus “debt” and “sin” had become almost synonymous (consider the interchangeability of the words debts and sins in Luke’s version of the “Lord’s Prayer”). However, there are two elements in Yahweh’s forgiveness which touch on the debt crisis. 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 conditions of today were caused by the rich of both the first world and the third world. But today it is only the third world who is 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, health care, and roads being spent on repaying loans made to their grand parents twenty-five years ago, who are paying for the sins. The rich can afford private health care and private education, and always have the tiny infrastructure budgets spent on their communities.
Second, true forgiveness redistributes power. The corollary of the new “Golden Rule” stated above is, “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 third world countries to comply, even if it means impoverishing their own people. In true forgiveness, the one who truly forgives, forgets the past and shares the gold. Jesus was despised by his 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).
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once told a story of teaching a confirmation class years ago 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 show themselves to be liberated people. And he showed them how that principle showed up in the teaching of Jesus later on. When finished he asked them as a review 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.”
A case strongly made by Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, revised), pp. 291-295.
 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.
 Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Baventa, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV - Year C (Louisville: John knox, 1994), p. 557.
 Jesus also uses the larger expression in his appropriation of Isaiah 61 in his Jubilee sermon at
(Luke 4:18-19). See André Trocmé, “Exactly what was this ‘year of the Lord’s favor’ that Jesus proclaimed?
Most exegetes agree that it was nothing less than the sabbatical year of
Jubilee…” (Jesus and the Nonviolent
Tradition, ed. Charles E. Moore (Farmington, PA, Bruderhof Foundation, Inc:
2004), p. 14. Nazareth
 Brueggemann, “Covenant as a Subversive Paradigm,” A Social
of the Old Testament: Prophetic Approaches to 's Communal Life
(Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress: 1994), p. 49. Israel
 A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, tr. Sr. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (New York: Maryknoll: 1988, revised ed.), p. 110-111.
 Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with
Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), p. 68.
 Brueggemann, Jeremiah, p. 294.
 See Brueggemann, “Covenant as a Subversive Paradigm,” p. 50, for more on this.