Thursday of Week 18 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Today we have our final reading from Jeremiah, although there are still more than 20 chapters of the book left. This passage is regarded as the high point of the prophet’s words with its promise of a new covenant. And we need to remember that this was written 600 years before the coming of Christ and the New Testament or Covenant he brought.

The Jerusalem Bible describes the significance of the passage:

In verses 31-34 Jeremiah reaches its highest peak of spirituality. The old covenant has been violated, and the attempted reform under Josiah has been short-lived: it is evident now that God has other plans. A disaster will ensue, leaving only a ‘remnant’ of the nation, and then an everlasting covenant will be made, a covenant as in the days of Noah. The former perspectives remain: man’s obedience to the Law, and the divine presence bestowing peace and material prosperity, this ideal being summed up in the formula: ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people’. But the covenant is ‘new’ in three respects:

1. God’s spontaneous forgiveness of sin;
2. individual responsibility and retribution;
3. interiorisation of religion.

The Law is no longer to be a code regulating external activity but an inspiration working on the heart of man, under the influence of the spirit of God, who gives man a new heart, capable of ‘knowing’ God. This new and eternal covenant, proclaimed again by Ezekiel, by the closing chapters of Isaiah, and operative in Ps 51, will be inaugurated by the sacrifice of Christ – and the apostles will proclaim its fulfilment.

This passage is the longest sequence of Old Testament verses to be quoted in its entirety in the New Testament. It is found in the Letter to the Hebrews (8:8-12) and quoted again in part in Hebrews 10:16-17. This is the only passage (in v.31) in the whole of the Old Testament where the term ‘new covenant’ (or ‘testament’) appears.  That ‘new covenant’ we now recognise in the new relationship with God established by Jesus Christ through his Paschal Mystery.

Jeremiah begins by proclaiming that “the days are coming”, a phrase that often refers to the Messianic era and, for us, there is a strong Messianic tone to the passage.

In those “days” God will make a “new covenant” with the Houses of Israel (in the north) and Judah (in the south), which will once again be united as one kingdom. “New covenant” is a term which is picked up in the New Testament more than once by Paul in his letters and in the Letter to the Hebrews. We know now that, while the old covenant was solemnised by the pouring of the blood of sacrificial animals, the new covenant will be solemnised by the blood of Christ poured out on the cross. The new covenant will differ in many significant ways from what will henceforth be called the “old” or “first” covenant made at Sinai.

In those days Jeremiah says, in a lovely phrase, God “took them by the hand”, echoing the beautiful words of Hosea:

It was I… who took them in my arms; I drew them with human cords, with bands of love. I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks (Hos 11:3-4)

Yahweh took his people to liberate them from the slavery of Egypt but, as we have seen many times in these readings, it was they and not God who broke that covenant and, as a result, they experienced many hardships. They would have to learn by painful experience that the Lord and only the Lord was their true master. (The word ‘master’ here can also be translated ‘husband’.)

Then comes a description of this ‘new’ covenant to be made with the house of Israel, now seeing both kingdoms as one.

It will not be simply a legal code, like that of Moses, to be observed by external acts. “Deep within them I will plant my law, writing it on their hearts.” It was to effectively govern their lives, in contrast to the ineffectiveness of merely presenting it in writing, though inscribed on durable stone.

“I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The terms of the old covenant remain but it is superseded by the new which will fulfil and go far beyond what was understood by the old. It will be a law totally assimilated into their very being so that its observance will flow naturally in all their words and actions. The old covenant is not abrogated; rather it becomes fully internalised.

Jesus will spell this out, especially in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, when he says that he comes not to abolish but to fulfil the Law. And only then will the covenant statement be really fulfilled: “I shall be their God and they shall be my people.”

Finally, there will then “be no further need for neighbour to teach neighbour”. In other words, there will no longer be those who are ignorant of God and his will for their lives. True knowledge of the Lord will be shared by all – young and old, the peasant and the powerful.

Because, “they will all, from the least to the greatest, know me”. Using the word ‘know’ in its fullest sense, it indicates a deep, intimate and direct knowing and not simply an intellectual ‘knowing about’.

The consequence of this deep interpersonal relationship is that “I will forgive their sin”. The very mutuality of the relationship will result in perfect reconciliation and forgiveness and the covenant promise will be fully realised: “I will be their God and they my people.” There will ensue that unity between God and his people of which Jesus will speak at the Last Supper. “I in them and they in me.”

It is for us to live the terms of this new covenant to the full. It is easy for Christians to fall back on an external living of their faith, seeing its observance in the keeping of external rules and regulations. We need to learn how to ‘know’ God in the deepest recesses of our hearts, to find him in every experience, to be aware of his unconditional love and to communicate that love to all those around us.

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