Jeremiah 31:27-34 – Luke 18:1-8 – 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
This week’s readings witness to the covenant and the role of the prophet as living concepts. That is, they can’t be “fixed” for all times, especially not in sacred scripture. Perennially it has been difficult to differentiate covenant from the two words that have accompanied it: promise and oath. For example, once the Hebrew Scriptures are assumed to be a finalized document, God’s original promise to Abram and Sarai becomes confused with the later covenant that God and they “cut.” (the original Hebrew root of the word for covenant) Although covenants involve mutual promises and are confirmed (jointly signed) by the two parties, the covenant itself is much more than promises.
Part of its complexity is revealed in its evolving definition across different languages and ages. The early Hebrew word for covenant came from the verb “to cut.” In the first covenant with Abram, the Lord passed a firepot between the halves of the sacrificial animals that Abram had cut. In the later New Testament era, the common Greek word for covenant referred to a testament, a contract agreed upon by two parties and “witnessed.” Still later, in the church’s Latin the word came from “covenir,” to come together.
The Latin best summarizes the religious evolution of covenant: it’s an expression of an ongoing relation-ship and dialogue. And there have been some difficult transitions in arriving there. The Hebrew prophets were pivotal in the shift away from the limited understanding of covenant as the confirmation of the specialness of God’s people and thus their right to claim Canaan. It was also that people’s promise to live each day toward a different future vision that would someday include all people. In the Medieval Latin, the word promise derives from the verb “promitterre” meaning “to send forth.” Thus, we see the insuperable connection between promise and mission. Jeremiah’s understanding of that connection caused him to say what some would have taken as sacrilege. “I will make a new covenant…. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors….” (Jer. 31:32f) That prior covenant that the Lord would supersede was the Torah, the bedrock of the people’s faith, which was to be rewritten in the responses of a still-maturing people to strange, emerging realities.
Paul had staked his ministry on the fact that the law (covenant, Torah) was always being reinterpreted, as the Lord’s original promise encountered the realities presented by each new moment, each new stranger. As he passed his mandate to Timothy, he named the greatest danger to the interpretation of covenant in daily action: there were always other covenants out there. For example, today there are national covenants that are narcissistic by design. There are also covenants like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The first type of covenant is built on the right of national states to impose their wills on each other and defeat each other in the common market. The second is premised on the inherent rights of all human beings, whether winners or losers in that market. Thus, the apostle warned the young disciple, “the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine… they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.” (2 Tim. 4:3) This is the point to which we have come.
Today’s prophets, as their forebears, stand upon covenant as an evolving dialogue about justice, not only with God’s power, but also with the world’s powers that, without thinking, choose the accumulation of wealth over the rights of the poor. Nations always follow their own myths. Transnational organizations like the UN must factor inalienable human rights into the equation. Today’s prophet stands before both like a widow pleading before an unjust judge, so that no party to the contract can claim to be unintentionally unjust. Inserting intentionality and accountability always brings discomfort, hence reaction.
© 2013 Jim Perdue in support of the work of United Methodists and others throughout the world working on behalf of migrants. Translation to Spanish by Rev. Rosanna C. Panizo.