Are we there yet?
In today’s Old Testament reading, Jeremiah assures us that “the days are surely coming that God will make a new covenant” and write the law in our hearts. What does that mean, write the law on our hearts?
It’s been 2500 years since Jeremiah gave us these words of hope, foretelling a future new covenant. Has God made the new covenant, or are we still waiting to have the law written on our hearts, whatever that means.
Trying to wrap my head around this passage, I found myself breaking it down into words. Two key words: law and heart.
The law: the Hebrew word that has been translated as “law” is the word “torah”. Often when we hear the word “torah” used today it is used as a Jewish term to refer to the first five books in the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. But in Jeremiah’s day, these books were still being written and edited, and they did not exist in the form that we have them in today. So what would be the version of the torah that Jeremiah is referring to?
Scholars think that although the Israelites in Jeremiah’s day didn’t have those five books that we now call the Torah, they had, at the very least, a written account of the ten commandments. But Jeremiah spoke of the torah that would be written on our hearts, he was probably referring to more than just the ten commandments. Although we are more familiar with the definition of Torah as written material, torah has many different meanings.
In today’s psalm reading we heard a lot about the torah, called God’s Law in this translation. In this ancient poem, the writer says
Oh, how I love your law!
It is my meditation all day long.
In The Message, a contemporary translation of the Bible, this line is translated as
“oh how I love all that you’ve revealed; I reverently ponder it all day long”.
This psalm actually contains a multitude of synonyms for the law or torah, including commandment, ordinances, testimonies, decrees, precepts and words. The torah can refer to not only written teachings, but oral teachings as well. So considering all this background information there seems to be no easy answer to the question: what is the law or torah? What is the law that God is writing on our hearts? Is it the ten commandments? Is it all that God has revealed and if so, is there enough room on our hearts for that to be written?
There’s a Jewish story about a man who approached a famous Rabbi and said, I will convert if you can teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot. The Rabbi stood on one foot and said “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That sounds a lot like what Jesus talked about when asked what the greatest commandment is. He replied “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” and “love your neighbour as yourself”.
With all your heart. And we are back to that word again. We think we know what it means. The heart, it’s an organ in your chest, but when we talk about loving the Lord our God with all our heart… we are talking about the heart as the place where our emotions come from. We could easily assume that that’s what Jeremiah meant: God’s law would be written inside of us on the place where our feelings come from.
Interestingly, I learned this week that in ancient Israelite thought, the heart was also considered to be the location of the will. This is important in the context of Jeremiah’s description of the new covenant. The problem with the Israelites that Jeremiah was speaking to when he said these words was that they had broken their covenant with God. This was the covenant God had made in the time of Moses, the one that included the ten commandments written on the stone tablets. The Israelites had broken this covenant, so God was going to make a new covenant. Instead of writing it on stone tablets, it was going to be written on our hearts. Instead of the law being located outside of us, it would be moved inside ourselves. It would be located in the place from where our emotions originate, sure, but it would also be located in the home of our will. This means that we will be able to obey it voluntarily, because the law becomes a part of our very selves. When the law becomes part of our will, what we want to do and what God wants us to do is the same thing. We can keep our end of this covenant.
Which brings me back to the original question, are we there yet?
If the law has been written on our hearts, we should be willing and able to love each other, unfalteringly. We should not be doing what is hateful to our neighbour. We should be loving our neighbour as ourself.
And as I look at the world around me, the people I see and read about in the news, I think, “no, we are not there yet”. I think about waking up Saturday morning, going out to my apartment parking lot and finding that several of my neighbours cars have had their windows smashed and been broken into. I think about my own less severe, but still uneighbourly behaviour when I am irritable and short-tempered with my family. I can think about Christian leaders who have hurt people terribly, committing unspeakable crimes.
The covenant hasn’t happened yet. People are still hurting each other. But something really important did happen between the time that Jeremiah made his prophecy about the new covenant and today: Jesus happened.
In Jesus Christ we saw God in human form, showing us how we would live if our hearts really were aligned with God’s law. Jesus showed us what it looks like to love each other. And witnessing this changed humanity.
Through the words of the prophet Ezekiel, God made a promise similar to the one in today’s text from Jeremiah. God said:
“ A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”
This transformation of our hard, uncaring hearts into fleshy hearts that can observe God’s laws, the transformation that Jeremiah and Ezekiel told us about, might be a slow process. This process was initiated by God becoming flesh and living among us as Jesus Christ. Now that we have seen and believed, our hearts must become flesh and be receptive to the spirit of God’s laws.
I see signs of this process. As much as I can look at the world around me and conclude that the law is NOT written on our hearts, I think in the 2000 years since the life of Christ, God has been softening our hearts and preparing them for the time when God will write the law on them.
Where do we see God softening our hearts? What are the signs that human beings are treating each other more lovingly? Despite what you see in the media, the amount of violence has actually been decreasing throughout history. We no longer use torture as a punishment for crimes. We have developed health care and social supports to look after each other when we are suffering.
We ARE becoming more compassionate. I believe God has been working through changes in our society to change our hearts. In many ways Globalization has helped us to become more compassionate. With new technologies and ways to communicate, we come to know each other better. And knowing someone is the first step to loving someone.
Having a pen pal has been a common experience for elementary school students for a long time. But only recently have students been able to see the faces and hear the voices of of their new friends and talk to them in real time over the internet. This has been a major step for young people today understanding the lives of people in distant countries. When we come to understand and appreciate the lives of people across the world, God softens our hearts.
Another marvel of technology is youtube, the website where anyone from anywhere in the world can upload a video that they made and make it available for us to watch it at home. We can log onto youtube and watch a video that someone took of their laughing baby, and consider that this video has been viewed an astonishing 9 million times by people from all over the world. And it feels like people are not as different as we might once have thought. When people all over the world can laugh along with a film of a laughing baby, God softens our hearts.
That’s not to say that that there still isn’t work to be done. But we can trust that God is doing the work. Today’s scripture readings from the epistles and the gospel give us some timely advice about how to refocus ourselves on the positive work that God does to transform our hearts. When we are despairing about the violence and suffering that humans inflict upon one another, we can look to scripture for words of comfort, and we can turn to God in prayer.
In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, we listen in to his words that tell us that:
“ All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
When we are despairing about the hateful things in this world, we can read the words of scripture, knowing that they can correct us by reminding us that God is good and gracious and active in our lives. These words equip us to participate in God’s transformation of our hearts.
And just as God can do wonderful things for the transformation of our hearts through the power of God’s word, we can also reciprocate in our relationship to God by coming to God in prayer. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us a parable about our “need to pray always and not to lose heart”. We can be persistent like the widow in the story, perhaps praying in the words of psalm 51:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and steadfast spirit within me.”
In our daily struggle of living, we may be impatient with this process of heart softening. But our loving God is a God who keeps promises, loves unconditionally, and never gives up on us. Pierre Teilard de Chardin, a philosopher and Jesuit priest offers us the following reflection. I invite you to ponder it in your hearts:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete. Amen.