Brief synopsis of the readings: The prophet Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant, but not like the covenant given to their ancestors when they fled Egypt. They broke that covenant and God “had to show them who was master.” This covenant will be written on their hearts and God “will forgive their iniquity and never call their sin to mind.” John’s Gospel begins with some Greeks who approached Phillip asking to see Jesus. Jesus told them that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” He spoke about a wheat grain that has to first die to yield a rich harvest. He then said this: “What shall I say: Father, save me from this hour? But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
So what do you do when someone breaks a promise to you? And more to the point, what do you do when you’re in a position of power and the promise allows the other person something they want. You’re a boss whose employee promises to meet a deadline and doesn’t do it. You’re a parent who trusts your child’s promise of responsibility only to find he’s fallen short.
This is where we begin with Jeremiah. When most of us think about the Old Testament prophets, we tend to think about Isaiah, but I think Jeremiah is more compelling. His prophecy begins before the Israelites were defeated and taken into exile in Babylon. He first warned the people that this was going to happen because of their wickedness; not only did they not reform, they tried to kill Jeremiah. And what he warned about came to pass. The Babylonians defeated them, destroyed the Temple, and sent their leaders into exile.
As an aside, you may have noticed that the Babylonian exile pops up with some regularity in the Old Testament. We read about it last week in Chronicles, and large sections Isaiah also describe it; we can also see references to the exile in 2nd Kings, Ezra, and Daniel.
In response to the exile, I could easily see Jeremiah’s response being something along the lines of: “See, I told you so. You should’ve listened to me.”
Instead he did something different. He recounted that God made a covenant with “the House of Israel and the House of Judah” on their escape from Egypt. But they broke the covenant “so [God] had to show them who was master.”
As I suggested at the beginning of this homily, if someone breaks an agreement, he really breaks trust. And that trust should only be restored incrementally. But instead God, if anything, elevated his trust. This new covenant will not be written on tablets, but instead will be written “on their hearts.” This new covenant will not have to be taught but will be understood by all.
OK, so what gives? Does this say something about us, or something about God? I think it says something about both.
If we examine our relationship with God (sometimes called “salvation history”) we can see a true progression. Adam and Eve feared God. Abraham obeyed God, even to the point of nearly killing his son. Moses dialogued with God, even to the point of asking God’s name. And while the Israelites often broke God’s covenant, we can see how the relationship between them and God has gotten closer.
Likewise we can see how God continues to get closer to us. While God shows his displeasure on breaking faith, God never gives up on us. The covenant with Moses was written on tablets and needed to be learned (many of us remember how we had to memorize the 10 Commandments), this new covenant reaches us not from outside through our ears, but from inside from our hearts. This covenant will not need to be taught as it comes to all of us, and each of us.
You might be putting the pieces together, but Jesus fulfills the promise made in Jeremiah. John’s writing is often complex, and sometimes (to my mind) confounding. But here we can clearly see that Jesus is foreshadowing his own death and resurrection but with an interesting twist. His glory will not be just for some, but for all.
It’s easy to miss this, but our Gospel begins with some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus. As I’ve spoken before, not all Israelites lived in Jerusalem, but most made their way there for Passover. Jerusalem would have teemed with people and animals from all over the countryside.
It would not have been a good place for Greeks. Not that they would have been met with hostility, but why go there then? Today, Muslims from all over the world flock to Mecca for the annual celebration of the Haj. If you’re not Muslim it would be a terrible time to visit Mecca. It would be crowded, expensive, and full of people doing things you don’t do.
And yet these Greeks are there. Most scholars believe that John included this to foreshadow not only Jesus’ glorification, but that it will be universal. John wrote his Gospel not only several decades after Jesus, but also after the ministry of Paul who spent his life reaching out to Gentiles (non Jews).
And so what do we make of these readings? Well, I think it tells us a few things:
First, I think it tells us that God’s covenant with us isn’t simply a matter of “following the rules.” There are periodic movements in the United States to have the Ten Commandments in public places (like schools and courthouses). Those of us who oppose this are accused of not loving God. But I oppose this because I don’t think following the Ten Commandments is enough. Our faith calls us to much deeper than not stealing and honoring our parents. If God’s covenant is written in our hearts we are called to look to our hearts. Simply put, we are called to look into each other hearts and love each other. Following the rules isn’t good enough.
Second, I think it calls us to put less emphasis on what we know. I remember this from years ago: a priest who was told that some of the laypeople he worked with were unhappy with him. He angrily responded that he “knew more about the faith than any of them.” That was true, but it allowed him to avoid the fact that they were troubled that his alcoholism made it increasingly difficult to hide the fact that he was having an affair with a divorced woman in the parish.
I’m not advocating the end of religious education, but I think sometimes we value what can easily be taught. Teaching children to memorize the Ten Commandments may not be as valuable as teaching the courage of St. Maximilian Kolbe (or soon to be St. Oscar Romero). Or the unconditional love of St. Theresa of Calcutta. Or the humor of St. John XXIII.
Our faith does not call us to ignore what is on the tablets, but it does call us to also pay attention to what is on our hearts.