by Rev. Joe Connolly
“No longer shall they need to teach one another or remind one another to listen to Yahweh or to know Yahweh. All of them— high and low alike— from the least of them to the greatest shall all listen to me, says Yahweh; for I will forgive their misdeeds, their iniquity, and remember their transgressions no more.” — Jeremiah 31:34.
There are several points to be made about this reading. But first, I need to reiterate what was said when this passage was introduced. It is a mistake is to give these words a preemptive Christian reading, to interpret the Prophet Jeremiah as saying anything about a difference between what we commonly refer to as the Testaments.
This passage is not in any way prophetic about the Christian era but is, rather, a call to renewal for the time in which it was written and for the people to whom it was written. Now that presents an obvious question. Why does attaching the concept of this being a prophecy about Jesus, a foretelling of the future, fail to be an accurate assessment?
The answer has two parts. First, prophecy in Scripture, all prophecy in Scripture, simply does not reference what might happen in the future. Prophecy in Scripture addresses what God might be saying in a given and specific context right then. Biblical prophecy, by definition, speaks about God’s everlasting truths, the principles God holds dear, not the future.
If that’s the case, this poses yet another obvious question. Why might people interpret Biblical Prophecy as a foretelling, a prediction? (Slight pause.)
Let me offer a story which I think might help explain why some people buy into this idea which says this passage is a foretelling of a Christian future. My story involves my father and one name you might know and another you probably do not know. So let me identify these folks who you may not know.
First: the name you might know— the comedian Jack Benny. Even though he died all the way back in the 1970s Benny was and to a certain extent still is quite famous. He had a radio program in the 1930s and 1940s and a television program well in the 1950s with some specials in the 1960s. Occasionally today I will still hear commercials using his lines or the sound of his voice.
His programs have been described as a variety show that blended in sketch comedy. Now, among the troupe of players who participated in both the variety and the sketch comedy aspects of Benny’s endeavors was this name I’m sure you don’t know— well, relatively sure. This fellow was a singer/actor, an Irish tenor, who went by the name of Dennis Day.
That having been said, my Father was a proud graduate of Manhattan College in the Bronx. Dennis Day was a proud graduate of Manhattan College in the Bronx. And whenever Dennis appeared on the screen of our old black and white television in the 1950s, my Dad would point at the TV and proudly say, “He’s a Manhattan graduate, you know.”
As a kid I remember thinking, “Why does he say that over and over every time he sees Dennis Day? What does it mean?” All these years later I think I can tell you what it means, or at least I think I can tell you what my father was trying to say. (Slight pause.)
Dennis Day— he’s a member of my tribe. And I’m a member of Dennis Day’s tribe. He may be famous and I’m not famous but we have a real connection. We belong to the same tribe. (Slight pause.)
You see, tribal connections do not need to make any logical sense. Tribal connections, this wanting to be connected with others— especially a tribal connection to the rich and/or famous— a tribal connection with those who you think might be in the same tribe as you is a visceral, emotional response.
And I think some people who make a connection between the Testaments do so because they see these words as if they foretold the future. And they are simply making a tribal, visceral, emotional connection here. That connection says “Look! The Prophet is pointing to my tribe! The Prophet is pointing to Jesus! And I am a part of the tribe of Jesus!” (Slight pause.)
Of course, the downside of insisting on this tribal connection is, by implication, it claims Jesus is a part of your tribe but the God of Jeremiah, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is not a part of your tribe. And guess what? The God of the Jeremiah, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, is a part of the tribe of Jesus. So making or even implying that there is a separation between the Testaments, no matter how visceral, how emotional that claim might feel, is an assertion which rests on quicksand.
To be clear, I do not doubt there might be hundreds of other reasons one perhaps could connect the words of Jeremiah with Jesus other than tribalism. But what I am saying is a sense of tribal connection needs to be high on that list of reasons in part because most of the time we don’t even consider tribal connections, don’t even think about it. But it’s there, hidden.
Of course, we tend to not think about it because it is a visceral, emotional response. We rarely or never think through visceral, emotional responses. It’s that cut and dry. (Slight pause.)
I need to make a second point about this reading and it may be evident already that this reading is thick with meanings. I need to make a second point about this reading so let’s explore it in a different way.
At one point in time it was a standard that, while someone was in Seminary pursuing a Master of Divinity Degree, that someone would write a Master’s thesis. By the time I was going through the process more than twenty years ago, writing a thesis had become a rarity. But write one I did.
The topic of my thesis was the Hebrew Scriptures. But my specific focus within that was midrash. Midrash is an ancient form of Jewish story telling evident both inside and outside of Scripture. In the introduction of that thesis I felt it was important to address my justification for wanting to write about this topic.
One of the things I said was I had grown up in New York City. New York City has a larger population of Jewish people than any other city in the in the world, larger than even Jerusalem. Further, I had many good and close friends who were Jewish and I had attended services of worship in synagogues.
I suggested I was thereby as much as a Christian could be, familiar with Jewish culture and had at least some understanding of Jewish culture. And midrash both was and is a part of Jewish culture— this story telling trait.
Now, that given— you have heard me say a number of times that what we commonly refer to as the Ten Commandments should in no way be taken as commands. Both in the Hebrew language and in Jewish tradition, in Jewish culture, these are known as the Ten Words.
Further and as you know, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Pentateuch— these are commonly and simply called the Law. But what is labeled as the Law— a name which would imply a strict set of rules— in Jewish tradition, in Jewish culture, is not thought of as set rules or as a series of commands. The Pentateuch, the Law, is thought of as instruction, a way to learn and a way of learning.
That having been said, last week a friend who had heard me say these things about the commandments and about the Pentateuch decided to do some fact checking. This friend wanted to see if my description was accurate. So they went to an acquaintance of theirs who is Jewish and inquired about the veracity of how I present the topic.
And guess what that friend reported back to me? “Well, the two of you use different words to describe it. But yes, you are saying the same thing. It comes down to instruction.”
So, what is labeled as the Law is not a set of rules but instruction. And right here, in this reading, you have the Prophet Jeremiah recording Yahweh, God, as saying (quote:) “I will put my Law within them, in their minds, and I will write it on their hearts.”
So, what is the Law, the instruction heard here? What is it we need to learn? (Slight pause.)
(Quote:) “I will forgive their misdeeds, their iniquity, and remember their transgressions no more.” The Law: I will forgive their misdeeds, their iniquity, and remember their transgressions no more. (Slight pause.)
I want to suggest what we need to learn is forgiveness— especially forgiving one another. Why? (Quote:) “I will be their God; they shall be my people.”
And Who is this God? God is a God for Whom forgiveness is an imperative. This is a God of peace. This is a God of freedom. This is a God joy. This is a God of liberty. This is a God of hope. This is a God of equity. This is a God of opportunity. This is a God of love. This is a forgiving God. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote this in her book Bread of Angels: ‘But…’ I love that word. Sometimes I think the whole gospel swings on that word— ‘I was lost but now I’m found, was lost but now I see’. It means things can change. It means we do not always know everything there is to know. It means God can still teach us something.”
BENEDICTION: God has made us partners in covenant. Let us truly be God’s people. Let us be guided by prayer, by study, by love, by justice. Let us continually praise the God of the universe who loves us. May our trust grow as we are empowered to do God’s work in this, God’s dominion. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one and nothing else. Amen.