Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

After hearing Jeremiah’s unrelenting oracles of judgment earlier in September, our focal passage this Sunday contains oracles of promise and hope.

Luke 18:5
"Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming." Photo by Etty Fidele on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

October 20, 2019

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 31:27-34

After hearing Jeremiah’s unrelenting oracles of judgment earlier in September, our focal passage this Sunday contains oracles of promise and hope.

It is nice to hear some good news from the prophet!

The book of Jeremiah can be generally divided as follows:

  • Jeremiah 1-25             Poetry of Judgment
  • Jeremiah 26-45           Narratives of Hope
  • Jeremiah 46-51           Oracles against the Nations
  • Jeremiah 52                 Conclusion

As you can see, our passage is contained within the book section providing hope and promise to the newly exiled community.

We can also situate Jeremiah 31:27-34 within a more immediate literary context of Jeremiah 30-33. Jeremiah 30-33 (or just Jeremiah 30-31) is called “The Book of Consolation” by modern scholars because of the tone of this poetic section. The oracles in this section announce promise to the exiles.

To build and to plant

Using language from Jeremiah’s commissioning in Jeremiah 1:10, God promises to build and plant using the seed of humans and animals. It is the promise of a continued future for the people and creation. Despite all of the destruction wrought by Babylon, despite all of God’s judgment, despite the threat of divine punishment, God persists in hope.

Just as Jeremiah’s call made clear, there is a time for plucking up and destroying and a time for building and planting. For those who wondered about Jeremiah’s use of four destructive verbs but only two constructive verbs in his call narrative, the long period of judgment must end. No more destruction or plucking.

God plans to restore the fertility of Israel and Judah (notice the mention of both kingdoms).

God as the Master Builder and as Gardner has arrived to construct a new future for the people.

Sour grapes

The next section of the passage quotes a proverb concerning parents eating sour grapes and their children feeling the effect in their teeth. The proverb asserts that one generation’s sins cause the suffering of the next generation. However, Jeremiah rejects this understanding of sin and proclaims that each generation will suffer the consequences of their sin.

It is important to note here that the move is not from a communal notion of sin to a more individualistic one. Their understanding of sin and punishment remains firmly communitarian. However, the dismissal of the proverb does provide hope that this generation will not pay for the mistakes of their elders. They can live in hope with God and move into an assuring new future.

A new covenant

Christians have misread this passage (verses 31-34) in a supersessionistic way for centuries. A typical Christian understanding sees Jeremiah’s new covenant as fulfilled in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection such that the Church receives the new covenant with God. This reading effectively replaces or supersedes Israel with the Church. The only way this type of misreading is possible is if one understands the real audience of this prophecy to be the Church. However, it is abundantly clear that Jeremiah’s new covenant is made with the houses of Israel and Judah. The prophecy does not need to be a foretelling of the far off future. It has a reasonable meaning within its originating context of the exiled community.

When Christians forget to share their sacred texts with their Jewish neighbors, they appropriate passages such as this one in harmful ways that invalidate the vitality of Judaism both ancient and contemporary. There are ways for Christians to speak of covenant and our relationship with God that also validate the covenant God made with Jews.

The new covenant here is better understood as a renewed covenant between God and Israel. It does not negate previous covenants such as the ones given to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. So, the people of Israel do not receive new teachings or new laws.  

However, the teachings, which Israel did not follow, will now be written on their hearts. It will be within them, internalized. God innovates in the way that the teachings or law will be communicated to the people. God introduces a new way of relating.

God initiates a renewed relationship with the people after the destruction.

God forgives.