March 22, 2015
Fifth Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Jer 31:31-34
In all likelihood, you’ve heard the gospel message a few thousand times. God sent his Son, Jesus, to die for your sins and rise again so that “whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). If that message about the new covenant is 2,000 years old then how is it still new? Most other things that are 2,000 years old are in ruins, so how does this ancient good news maintain its freshness?
Setting the Stage
This Sunday’s first reading from Jeremiah prophesies a new covenant, which transforms us from within. The Old Covenant, the covenant with Moses and the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai, did transform people, but it did so by externally prescribing a difficult-to-obey law. The identity of the adherents of the Old Covenant came from reading, studying, and practicing that law in detail. Unfortunately, ancient Israel could not live up to the Law. They failed in many ways to keep the law, which God had entrusted to them. Whether their grumbling about the food in the Exodus period or the idolatry of the kings in later periods, the people did not live up to God’s expectations.
In response to the infidelities of his people, God punished them. In the wilderness, the disobedient generation died before they could enter the promised land. In later times, the Lord allowed Israel to be conquered by Assyria and Judah to be vanquished by Babylon. The prophecy says, “I had to show myself their master” (Jer 31:32 NAB). In Jeremiah’s day, the remnant of Jews survived as a refugee community in ancient Babylon. Jeremiah forecasts that God will bring them back to the Holy Land and establish a new covenant with them.
What’s so “New”?
But this new covenant will not be like the old one. Rather than having an external code to adhere to, the new covenant will have an internal law, what the Catechism calls the “interior law of charity” (CCC1965). Jeremiah says it best: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts” (Jer 31:33 RSV). The difference between old and new is the way God interacts with us. The old law was only able to show us how unrighteous we were because we could not live up to it, but under the new law of love, the Holy Spirit comes to live within us an enable us by grace to live out God’s calling.
Not only that, but Jeremiah says no one will even need to teach others how to know the Lord. This might be a bit of exaggeration, but even St. Paul says that once we become mature Christians, “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). More than that, “the Spirit of truth” dwells within us (John 14:17) and will guide us “into all the truth” (John 16:13). Jeremiah also says that everyone in God’s people will “know the Lord,” without distinctions based on class, status, or age. Paul sees that same distinctionless knowledge of God under the new covenant: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28 RSV). Knowledge of God, deep, intimate relationship with him, is available to everyone.
Jeremiah prophesies the New Covenant here (Jer 31:31). The New Testament writers see the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Luk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 8:13, 9:15, 12:24). In fact, the word “Testament” is an older English translation of the Greek (diatheke) and Hebrew (berit) words for covenant. The covenant is made in the blood of Christ. He is the “mediator” of the new covenant (Heb 12:24), the apostles are its ministers (2 Cor 3:6), and through it, we are not only redeemed but promised an inheritance (Heb 9:15). Under the old covenant, one could look forward to the promise of a peaceful life in the Promised Land, but under the new covenant, we look forward to the eternal Sabbath rest of heaven.
Is It Still New?
When people walk into a Catholic parish for the first time and find a man wearing ancient-looking robes, Latin prayers, an electric coffee percolator from the ‘50’s in the parish hall next to the Bingo board, and crusty lemon bars at the parish potluck, they might wonder if the “new covenant” dropped dead a long time ago. Yet the ancient message of the gospel is still new for us today. Why? The Gospel is not about setting up a legal system, but about transforming hearts. It is about freeing people, one at a time, from the darkness and slavery of sin and releasing them into “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21 NAB). Conversion to Christ and the Gift of the Holy Spirit are not ancient cultural relics from the Roman world, but are offered anew everyday by our eternal God, who dwells outside of time, to those of us dwelling inside of time who are willing to listen to him. As birth and death have never gone out of fashion, so the gospel message will constantly retain its power, its relevance and its newness.
So yes, the New Covenant is still new. It will always be “new” in that it offers us not a code of external prescriptions, but the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is new in that it is available to all, not restricted to any one group of people. And the new covenant is always new in that it can transform each of us when we are willing to open our hearts to its Mediator. He is always ready to offer us the freedom, the salvation, the transformation he bought with the price of his blood.