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This Week's Commentary
Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 22, 2015Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 51:1-13 | Hebrews 5:5-10 | John 12:20-33 | Psalm 119:9-16
The passage from Jeremiah brings us back explicitly to the sequence of covenants that play such a large role in biblical thinking. We began with the covenant God made with Noah and with all living things never again to flood the whole earth. Indeed, God’s promise went beyond this: the natural cycles needed for agriculture would henceforth be reliable. This assurance is given, not so much despite God’s recognition of human sinfulness, but because God recognizes and accepts that reality and promises never again to respond with just punishment. In Jesus’ much later language, God sends his rain alike on the just and the unjust. It is in the context of a basically reliable nature that human beings have the opportunity to work out their problems.
The second covenant is with Abraham. God called Abraham to leave his homeland, and Abraham’s responsiveness to that call sufficed. The promise is especially of innumerable heirs who will inherit the blessing as long as the men identify themselves by circumcision. The actual development among Abraham’s heirs went far beyond numerous progeny and became a deepening of religious life and thought that reshaped the world.
The first big step in this development was the third covenant, the one mediated by Moses. The promise of God’s favor is more fully articulated here, but most important, the way of life that is entailed in living out of this covenant is clarified in its sharp distinction from the way of the “nations.” Circumcision remains as the distinguishing mark, but the focus is on what we call “the Law,” the way of living in covenant relation with God.
It would be a misreading of the law to say that it dealt only with outward behavior. Nevertheless, it was possible to become preoccupied with external obedience while ignoring the full and deeper meaning of the law. The prophets understood that the law aimed at justice, but that there were forms of technical obedience that actually violated justice. The Hebrew people preserved their writings alongside the books of the law. Although the prophets often were in trouble with the authorities of their time, their message was heard and treasured.
One of the greatest prophets was Jeremiah. His message resonates among both Jews and Christians to this day. He made unequivocally clear that the God with whom Israel was in covenant was the one and only God. He was equally clear that formal obedience to numerous rules did not constitute the response for which the one God called. Earlier the distinction between outer conformity and inner purity had been implicit, but it was not thematically developed. Jeremiah takes the next great step.
Today’s passage gives vivid expression to Jeremiah’s dissatisfaction with the dominant response to God’s covenant and his call for something more. The contrast is clear. The old covenant is one of obedience to an external law. The new covenant will be a transformed heart.
In a sense we can date this next covenant to Jeremiah’s announcement of its coming. Once the distinction is clear, the love commandment’s centrality in Jewish teaching insures that thoughtful Jews will distinguish between mere outward obedience and true inner conformity.
Nevertheless, the followers of Jesus were not wrong in laying special claim to this new covenant. Jesus was far from alone among Jews in building on Jeremiah’s distinction. But he pushed it hard. And his followers drew out its implications and embodied them in historical communities. Christianity claimed the realization of the new covenant and identified its teaching in this way. For Jews it remained a nuance within the Mosaic covenant that could be developed to one degree or another.
Jeremiah’s hopes remain a part of Judaism. Individual Jews may live much more fully in terms of the inwardness for which Jeremiah called than individual Christians. But to be a Christian requires that one adopt Jeremiah’s version of the Mosaic covenant. Being a Jew does not. To be a Christian is to claim to belong to the Abrahamic family whether or not one is circumcised or obeys other parts of the Mosaic law. This requires the claim that the inner life, what Paul called “pistis”, is primary.
The book of Hebrews deals with the concept of the new covenant most extensively. Indeed, the entire passage from Jeremiah is quoted: 8:8-12. It is one of the later writings of the New Testament and already reflects a kind of scholasticism. The argument reflects a need to show how Jesus has the authority to institute a new covenant in which there is no need for animal sacrifice.
From the beginning, followers of Jesus searched the scriptures, which they shared with other Jews, for anticipations or prophesies of what had happened in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Much of what they claimed makes sense even today. But some of the argumentation now seems far-fetched. In my view this is true of the attribution to Jesus of priestly authority.
In today’s passage it is written that God said to Jesus: “Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” This claim is based on Psalm 110, where God is depicted as addressing David. The connection with Melchizedek was that he was a king who was also a priest. The “forever” seems to be gratuitous glorification of the king. The psalmist apparently wants the king to be clothed in religious authority. Through somewhat contorted reasoning, some early Christians applied the psalm to Jesus.
Hebrews declares Jesus to be an everlasting high priest. It also describes the role of the everlasting high priest as bringing in the new covenant quoted from Jeremiah. To us it seems that Jesus clearly proclaimed Jeremiah’s vision to be at hand. His followers claimed it for themselves. To see Jesus’ role as bringing this new reality into being makes excellent sense. To introduce Jesus’ role as high priest seems quite superfluous.
A word now about John’s depiction of Jesus’ approach to his own death. Clearly, Jesus is troubled by the prospect of crucifixion. But he views it primarily as glorification. What the world regards at utmost humiliation is the occasion for God to glorify Jesus. As we noted last week, being raised on a cross is the means of drawing people to him. The penitential piety that wallows in identification with Jesus’ suffering is far from John’s mind.