Responsible people need hearts that are transformed by God’s instruction and persistence to demand the reign of righteousness.
The prophetic readings of the last two months, taken from Jeremiah, reach a climax in the prophecy of the new covenant.
The indictments of the sinful city and people, the agonies over the devastation that is the punishment of the sin, the counsel to accept exile as God’s new direction for a people of the Diaspora, and a transaction symbolic of new life on the promised land—all these have been dramatically portrayed in Jeremiah’s words and actions. What remains is the question of the humanity who will be included in the new venture of God with a chosen people. Our passage says the people of the new time will be individually responsible and will have a compelling inward guidance to fulfill God’s will.
The first part of the Jeremiah passage reminds us of the Federal deficit. “The parents have eaten sour grapes, / and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” This is an old proverb, which is also quoted and applied to the same situation by Ezekiel, who devotes a whole chapter (Ezekiel 18) to its interpretation for the exiles. The previous generation has brought disastrous consequences upon their children and grandchildren. This has been the way of the world, but in God’s eyes it will be so no longer. Sin will not be inherited, its consequences will no longer be passed on to those who could not avoid it. “All shall die for their own sins” (verse 30), not those of someone else.
This doctrine can be sustained only for a people who have known exile, a people whose former society has been dissolved.
In the old time, the people paid the price for the king’s misdeeds and errors. The whole society flourished or suffered as the king was faithful or unfaithful to God. From now on, each person will be responsible for her/his own destiny before God. “All shall die for their own sins.”
The second part of the passage promises a cure to the cause of the disaster that led to the exile. The sinful people were indicted because “they did not obey or incline their ear, but, in the stubbornness of their evil will [literally “their bad heart”], they walked in their own counsels, and looked backward rather than forward” (Jeremiah 7:24). They guided their lives by the stubbornness of their hearts. The heart was the problem—the heart, the organ of personal motivation. The heart would not obey the instruction of God.
The new covenant passage (Jeremiah 31:31-34) says God will give each person a new heart, one with God’s instruction (torah) written upon it. People will no longer need to teach each other to know God, for “they shall all know me [says the Lord], from the least of them to the greatest,” that is, everyone individually will have the knowledge to be responsible.
My teacher in old days at Hebrew Union College felt that this passage expressed a divine determinism—God doing it entirely for each person rather than making each person responsible to choose God’s will—a view that would not have come from Jeremiah himself. The God of Jeremiah’s experience would not have turned over personal choice to do right in such a manner. (Sheldon H. Blank, Jeremiah Man and Prophet, Hebrew Union College Press, 1961, pp. 208-213.)
In any case, the issue of personal motivation to do God’s will loomed larger and larger for a people who had accepted exile and become the Diaspora.
A new way of responding to God’s will was pointed to by the psalmists and sages who found their hearts transformed by cherishing God’s torah, God’s instruction.
The Psalm reading is one stanza from one of the most remarkable compositions in all Biblical literature. The 119th psalm, all 176 verses of it, is a kind of on-going polyphonic fugue. It is an alphabetic acrostic, each group of eight verses beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet—from aleph to taw. The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each receiving eight lines of verse, produce the 176 verses of the psalm.
Each group of eight verses also presents its praise of and devotion to God’s instruction, torah, by using a set of synonyms for torah that are repeated throughout the psalm. Each one of the twenty-two stanzas uses most of these words for God’s will or instruction—the terms (in NRSV translation) are law, commandment, decrees, precepts, word (dabar), ordinances, and words (’imrah, also translated promise, e.g., verse 38). These seven are used, in this order, in our reading, verses 97 through 103. Verse 104 repeats the term precepts, already used in verse 100, instead of using the eighth synonym of the group, statutes. (Our reading is the Mem stanza, every line beginning with the Hebrew consonant corresponding to M in the Roman alphabet.)
Whoever composed this psalm had saturated himself in these words. They are combined and recombined in cycles of devotion, declarations, and prayers. The divine instruction that is pointed to by all these terms is written deeply on the mind, heart, and emotions of this speaker. The circles of poets and sages who composed and relished this psalm and others like it—Psalm 1, Psalm 19, and Psalms 111 and 112—had truly made God’s law reign over their wills and their confessions. These are the psalms of the “torah piety,” of the devotion that became virtually mystical about the revelation, mystery, and profundity of God’s gift of the law.
There is no mention of Sinai, or Moses, or of prophetic reforms based on law. There is only love and unqualified devotion to the instruction and wisdom God has given for the human heart.
II Timothy 3:14-4:5
The Epistle reading is also profoundly committed to God’s revelation as a transforming power for God’s servants. The Apostle recalls that Timothy has known from childhood “the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation” (verse 15, NRSV). These writings are, of course, the law, the prophets, and the psalms—the numerous scrolls that a well-educated Jew became accustomed to handling easily. (Some “handling” was indeed required! The Law, Prophets, and Writings, even in Hebrew, consisted of at least twenty separate scrolls, and even more in Greek translations.)
Our passage continues with that other 3:16 text, so beloved by Bible Christians. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Again, this is said about the Jewish holy writings, which Paul and Timothy saw as pointing to the whole saving appearance and work of Christ Jesus. There were no Christian scriptures at this time; only Jewish scriptures, and these it was that should instruct Jesus followers into righteousness and “every good work” (verse 17).
Since Timothy knows and believes the scriptures, he is equipped for service to the Lord, and the Apostle delivers an ordination sermon to him (4:1-2). He sees trials ahead that will lead people to fall away and to walk in the stubbornness of their own hearts and minds. “…[T]he time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths” (verses 3-4. Intimations of the Jesus Seminar, or Postmodernism?). The Apostle is warning Timothy of the opposition he will face, virtually as God warned Jeremiah at the early stage of the mission to which he was called (Jeremiah 1:17-19). To face the challenge, Timothy is armed with the scriptures and the example of the Apostle who suffers in the service of the Lord Jesus (3:10-12).
In the Gospel reading Jesus tells a parable of the judge and the widow. This judge certainly did not saturate himself in the instruction of the Lord, nor even burden himself with the opinions of men. And yet this independent and thoroughly autonomous magistrate was confronted with a murmuring day and night, a pleading for justice from this unrelenting widow.
The parallel to this widow’s activity is the person referred to in Psalm 1, who murmurs (the literal meaning of “meditates” in 1:3) day and night, constantly reciting God’s instruction back to God—that instruction about the blessed way of the righteous and the way of the wicked who will get lost.
Jesus’ instruction is about prayer, and the single, unqualified motif emphasized here is persistence. Wear him down! Make him do the right thing, not because he wants to do good, but to get rid of you! Fill the magistrate’s surroundings with the buzz and business of righteous ones pleading the cases of the powerless, the needy, and the neglected.
That’s how to pray, says Jesus, like the chasidim who never cease chanting torah so that one day God will finally relent and send the Messiah!