Reformation Day

The only systemic structure that can truly enact justice cannot be made by human decrees

Mosaic of Martin Luther's rose on white stucco wall
Photo by Matt Meilner on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

October 31, 2021

First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Jeremiah 31:31-34 is such a beautiful text for Reformation Sunday! In many ways, what Luther envisioned flows from this description of a new covenant, one embedded in the goodness of the human person that is unmatched by the insufficient outward obedience to external laws, an interiority which is not achieved by human effort but is gifted through grace.

But just like the “cheap grace” that results from misunderstanding Luther’s theological system, the depth of biblical texts like these can be missed. Jeremiah does not offer cheap grace, but rather a radical reorientation of human persons.

A covenant is a relationship, pure and simple. It is a commitment that creates a bond between at least two parties that usually involves expectations, limitations, and trust. It is tempting to hear the proclamation of this text from Jeremiah and focus on the trust, the bond, the mutuality. It is a little like listening to the exchange of vows at a wedding and thinking that some magical process has occurred that enacts a relationship that is actually merely promised. It ignores the enactment of that bond.

Jeremiah 31 contains intersecting elements of covenant relationships that can be easily missed in its dreamy ideal. I want to focus on three of those: 

  • Covenants affect more than the parties involved because they create new interconnections between and among pre-existing communities
  • A covenant needs to be internalized to be effective 
  • Covenants place parameters on behavior; they have their own internal logic that can be expressed in legal metaphors.

These three elements are present in this short biblical passage, and they are still part of the new covenant of Luther’s Reformation.

The audience that this ancient text addresses is one whose identity is formed by a common communal past, one symbolized by God’s deliverance of their ancestors from systemic oppression and the shaping of that community through the constitution revealed on Mount Sinai. This foundational event, however, just like the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses, or more appropriately, Christ’s death on the cross, did not guarantee that the community stayed true to the vision of a community that had learned the lessons of systemically unjust labor practices or the depth of divine self-giving love. 

The sins that Jeremiah 31 refers to include Israel’s own mistreatment of those within their covenant community through an economic system that maintained hegemonic authority among a small group of elites. The book of Jeremiah pays special attention to those who benefitted from the monarchic system: kings, priests, court prophets, and elders. The author has lost hope that humans can sustain a systemically ideal society.

Luther’s principle of faith alone mirrors Jeremiah’s law written on the heart, in other words, an interiority that re-orientates the person to God. But note that this text does not expect that this is achievable in any kind of real time. The phrase “The days are surely coming … ” locates this promise into a distant future. It is utopia and not constitution. The uncovering of systemic racism in our country as part of a culture which stemmed from Protestant Christian principles demonstrates that we have not come far from the days of Jeremiah 31, and that humans as individuals and as communities, even faith communities, still fail.

What Jeremiah 31 envisions is an interior torah (often translated as “law”) as the necessary linchpin for transforming a community. While that torah does contain legal requirements, its general meaning is “teaching” or perhaps better a system that inculcates justice. I admit that when I read some of the laws in the Pentateuch, I do not always see a just system, but that is not what the word here intends. It expresses the realization that the only systemic structure that can truly enact justice cannot be made by human decrees. It stems from a conversion to full recognition of the nature of God, the depth of divine grace, and the servanthood to community that flows from this epiphany.

This passage reminds us that systemic justice is both promise and enactment. Although the promise cannot be achieved by our own efforts, the passage calls our faith communities to live into that promise through our own communal incarnation, inadequate though they may be, that attempt to embody an interior culture of gratitude and servanthood.