Formally, a covenant is an agreement or legal contract,
although the word is used more often in the religious arena. In
fact, in the religious arena, LOTS of agreements get called a
covenant. The “marriage covenant” the “covenant of the
ordained” (which, btw, doesn’t actually exist but the powers that
be in the church like to hold us to one anyway), behavior covenants
at camp or on mission trips. I was a little shocked when John
Dominic Crossan was here a few years ago to learn that covenants
aren’t as morally neutral as I’d thought.
Religious groups use covenant language because our Bible
does, but it turns out that our Bible uses it because that was the
normal means of making agreements in its day. And covenants are
inherently power dominant. The dominant party sets the standards and
tells the less powerful party what the consequences will be if the
less powerful party doesn’t meet the standards of the dominant party.
It isn’t some particularly holy thing – it’s a form of agreement
between unequals, that functions as a means of naming the punishment
if the less powerful party doesn’t hold up to their end of the deal.
(Which they may not have had much choice about getting into anyway.)
The Hebrew Bible is full of covenants, and almost all of
them have condition in them and punishments delineated as well. They
tend to say, “If you do this, then I will be your God and you will
be my people and things are going to be OK. If not, then it follows
that the inverse will happen.” However, today we are talking about
the exceptions. The first exception is in the covenant made with
The story of Abraham’s covenant appears 3 times in
Genesis, and in 2 of the 3 versions it is unconditional. The the
3rd, it is conditional on circumcision. The three
versions relate to the three different “voices” in Genesis, and
this story is important enough that all three versions are known and
told. My favorite is the Priestly version in Genesis 15, whereby God
intentionally takes on the roles of both the powerful and the
powerless in covenant making and thereby takes all the responsibility
for the relationship continuing to work.
That covenant is the one most like what we hear in
Jeremiah 31, where we hear of the “new covenant.” Jeremiah is
generally considered a downer prophet, as his role was to say that if
the nation of Israel didn’t change its ways, it was going to be
However, Jeremiah 31 is the middle of three hopeful
chapters whereby the prophet names that after the destruction that
would come, an even better relationship with God would be possible.
The hope is even more potent in the midst of the the rest of the
book, and its threats of dire destruction. The particulars of the
new covenant are worth noting. Let’s hear that part again:
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.
It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a
covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.
But 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.
The comparison for the “new covenant” are the
covenants in the Torah. In those covenants God made promises to the
people that were CONTINGENT on the people upholding their promises to
God. In this new covenant God takes all the responsibility on God’s
self. The people don’t have to learn, or memorize, or interpret the
Torah because God will “put it within them” and “write it on
their hearts.” And in this way the people and God will be
The part that is particularly inspiring to me is, “ 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.” God’s self is not entirely knowable within the
human realm, and it is easy to get lost in figuring out God even when
we’re trying our hardest. The idea that everyone could know, and
intuit the goodness and love of God AND act out God’s kindom is
The final line is both really powerful in its original
context, and likely the reason that the Christian Tradition has so
strongly claimed this text. The line is, “for I will forgive their
iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” For those who heard
Jeremiah, and for those who complied his remembered speeches into a
book, the reason for the exile was that the people had been
unfaithful to the covenant with God. They had not followed the Torah
laws, they had allowed the rich and powerful to abuse the poor and
powerless, and they had forgotten God’s will. Whether or not that
was the reason for the exile, it is the reason that is assumed within
the book. To forgive iniquity and sin, then, was a form of
restoration. To continually forgive iniquity and forget sin is to
take away the threat of punishment and create the hope of security.
Now, as the Christian Tradition has strongly claimed
authority over God’s forgiveness of sins, it makes a lot of sense
that it has strongly claimed this “old” (by the standards of
Christianity) idea of the “new” covenant. However, claiming
Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant is a really radical claim for
Christianity to make! Sure, Christianity also claims that we and God
have made an eternal covenant, God is our God and we are God’s
people. That one is easy. We also claim forgiveness, that fits.
But we aren’t yet in a time, as far as I know, where we are past
having to teach each other of God and God’s goodness. Nor are we
living in a time when all people intuit and live out right action
that allows the kindom to come and continue.
The “new covenant” of Jeremiah in some ways reminds
me of the kindom itself – it is here and now! But it is here and
now IN PART and we are working towards the day when it is here and
now in completion! I love, though, that Christianity is claimed this
deep and profound dream as ours. Of course, I hope we all remember
that the dream is one from our Hebrew Bible and we don’t have a
unilateral claim to it.
A while ago, one night at Bible Study we came across our
Gospel passage for today, and someone raised a question, “What is
this ‘new covenant’ thing?” The answer referred us to the Jeremiah
passage. For a lot of people present that night, things CLICKED. The
United Methodist communion liturgy refers to the new covenant twice.
The first time it shows up describing the life and ministry of Jesus
where it says:
Holy are you, and blessed is your Son Jesus
By the baptism of his suffering, death, and
you gave birth to your Church,
delivered us from
slavery to sin and death,
and made with us a new covenant
water and the Spirit.
When the Lord Jesus ascended,
to be with us always,
in the power of your Word and Holy Spirit.
The second time is when the communion cup is named and
raised, where it says:
When the supper was over, he took the cup,
thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said:
from this, all of you;
this is my blood of the new
poured out for you and for many
forgiveness of sins.
Do this, as often as you drink it,
remembrance of me.”
Those who had grown up hearing those words, over and
over, without context, were excited to know the context of it.
In addition to showing up in our communion liturgy, the
concept of the New Covenant is also found in our language for our
Scriptures. The so-called New Testament which is alternative
language for, yep you got it, “New Covenant.” Our Bible itself
claims that the stories of Jesus and the early church ARE the stories
of the new covenant of Jeremiah being lived out on earth. And, I
think this is claimed because it is believed. And, I think the claim
that our faith tradition is an expression of Jeremiah’s “New
Covenant” is both excessive and hopeful.
Someday, may it fully be so. Amen
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305