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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

New Covenant of Love

Jeremiah 31:33-34

33 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. 34 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.

Matthew 22:34-40

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, an expert in the law, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

This Sunday is the last Sunday in Lent. We have been journeying through the book of Leviticus, but we now transition to a broader context in which the law applies. Our final service on how we violate covenant is derived from the Jeremiah and Matthew passages, that of failing to love.

When I first conceived of this series, I wasn’t certain how doing a series from Leviticus would land, especially since we weren’t discussing what are typically referred to as the clobber passages often used against the LGBT community. Putting all that aside, I concentrated on the kinds of behaviors that God instituted that would maintain covenant and aid in the people’s journey to be holy. What is remarkable is that there is this transition from following the letter of the law to following the spirit of the law, but there are those who never make the leap.

By the time we get to Jeremiah, we have this moment of intervention from God. They are living in the diaspora, having been hauled away from their homeland to Babylonia. Jeremiah, a prophet of God not held in Babylon, writes to the people to tell them that God will redeem them, but not right away. His letter to the Israelites is strange to be sure. He writes:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

It is out of this notion that they need to settle in for the long haul, they need to make an effort to prosper themselves, even in a foreign land, that God then says to them regarding his promise to restore them in their homeland, that everything has changed. Your time away from the promised land has changed you – as a people you are no longer the same group that I brought out of Egypt, you are generations beyond where we started. God, in this same moment needs to assure them that while they were given certain laws to follow previously, God now sees that these laws did not make things easier, but harder. So instead of giving them more laws, God is going to write the law into their hearts. We might pause at this point in the story and ask, “What kind of law can be written on the heart.”

This is where the Matthew text folds so neatly into the narrative. Jesus is being challenged by the religious leaders of his day who are still adhering to the letter of the law. In some sense, we can say that part of Jesus’ role in society was to demonstrate the Jeremiah passage; to remind the Sadducees and Pharisee’s that the letter of the law was no longer necessary, but rather an internal change was what God required – the whole “love kindness, show mercy, walk humbly” scenario.

In this moment where Jesus is tested, he gives us the next piece of this very important puzzle. We are to love. The whole of the law was always about learning to live in community with one another. It outlined how we are to treat one another, care for the least of these, including the resident aliens that live among us. Even the passages that talk about God cutting someone off from the community, we see that there was always a remedy, it was called the Day of Atonement. As long as the people were making an effort, God continued to show up. God remained faithful, even when the people didn’t know how.

As Jesus explains what the law actually requires: To Love God, love our neighbor, and to love ourselves; the religious leaders of his day were taken aback at the simplicity of his statement. They knew he was speaking the truth, but it also angered them because they knew they were failing on all counts. This should have been their forte, as priests and caretakers of the community, but they had become so legalistic that they could no longer see the people as their greatest asset, instead they were a liability.

We can make some interesting connections to our present-day circumstances. I’ve used this quote from Phillip Gulley many times, “You know that you have created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.” This quote sums up beautifully what we have become; what happens when we reduce God’s law to a legalistic way of living rather than living by the law of love.

While this may seem far off base, at first, I believe these two things are intimately connected. It is nearly impossible for us to love others when we are incapable of truly loving ourselves. For those of us raised in the church, we often received mixed messages as children – God loves you, but if you aren’t a Christian or if you don’t meet certain requirements, then you are going to hell for all eternity, because God said so. This message distorts the true meaning of love. Love is not narcissistic nor is it self-deprecating.

As a people, we are not very good at loving ourselves or others. Our ability to love is often tied up with our ability to trust. Perhaps, what we can learn from the concept of atonement and our need to love is that love is a state of mind, a way of being. Whether I trust you or not, I can still love you, if for no other reason than you, too, are a child of God, created in God’s image and likeness. Loving others is a ways of seeing the world. It is a way of orienting ourselves toward a God who is loving.

The life of Jesus becomes the example of what a new covenant looks like – a community builder who peddles love. Keeping God’s covenant is all about following in Jesus’ footsteps – to love God, love neighbor, and love self. That is the greatest commandment and the best covenant of all.

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