Jeremiah’s Barbs (Jer. 31:31-34)

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 10, 1986, p. 1111. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It’s a sobering thought — as surrogate parents, you and I are about as good as Jesus, on balance, is likely to find. If the love of God cannot be advanced through such as we, it is not likely ever to be advanced. It is time for us to grow out of our juvenile, neurotic absorption with our frailties and begin assuming our roles as God’s earthly parents.

‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts: and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" [Jer. 31:31-34].

Readers will decide for themselves about the usefulness of such self-pity. My point in bringing up this side of Jeremiah’s relationship to God in the context of our exultantly hopeful text is that it helps us see that even in his most reconciled and pious moments, Jeremiah still was not able to speak of God’s doings without sounding a note of chastisement.

Clearly, our text about the coming of a glorious new covenant contains one of Jeremiah’s not-so-hidden barbs. To be sure, Israel was guilty of having broken the covenant that God gave Moses, even though "I was their husband, says the Lord." On the other hand, that covenant was imperfect -- for it was breakable, and it was breakable precisely because God did not put his "law within them." God did not "write it upon their hearts" and in such an immediate way become "their God" and thus truly enable them, from their side, to be God’s "people."

If Jeremiah’s barbs are any indication, things haven’t changed much. For our part, we do not usually consult with God when we are confronted with life’s decisions. We do not wish to -- if only because we already have to contend with the opinions of wives or husbands, friends and enemies, relatives and employers. Also, God’s opinions would hopelessly complicate our essentially practical, pragmatic choices. We wouldn’t even know how to drag in the eternal in deciding, say, whether to buy an American or a Japanese car. Most of our decisions are strictly ours to make. Moreover, God is generally silent anyway. Even if I wanted God’s opinion on this, that or the other thing, I an unlikely to receive it. On the really weighty matters -- whether to murder or embezzle or slander or to entertain envy or lust -- I know what the answer is; even to ask would be an impertinence.

Most believers do a fairly good job where the self-evidently hideous, personal sins are concerned. Generally we are not murdering, stealing, lying, jealous wantons. When we read in the newspaper about some ax-wielding murderer we can barely comprehend such malevolence. While we ourselves feel guilty because we might have behaved brusquely toward a colleague, we read of others who brazenly declare that they don’t care to whom they transmit the AIDS virus. Examples of such unspeakable selfishness, though they abound in the newspapers, still boggle our radically more "righteous" minds.

Of course, on some extremely grave matters -- such as abortion -- we as a society are never fully certain whether we are engaged in a heroically virtuous act of women’s liberation or in the heartless extermination of the weakest members of the human community for the purposes of the stronger. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as members of a society that countenances the murder of the very young. Yet our consciences are not totally clear, either. The churches aren’t quite ready to devise an abortion ritual, to be enacted in clinics and hospitals, that would call on God to bless this "holy" alternative to birth and baptism. If only God would write on the human heart his law in these matters. But God is silent, or -- as judged by our uncertain hearts -- is giving contradictory messages. On this issue it is possible to experience such contradictory jolts of conscience that one finally doesn’t know whether to list oneself as a member of a society of the courageously righteous who are mature enough to face up to life’s ambiguity and do the difficult things that freedom requires -- or simply a society of moral failures. One even has nightmares intimating that perhaps there is no difference.

Left on our own, we are, in most ordinary matters, neither heroically righteous nor heroically evil nor even heroically ambiguous; we simply drift -- from at least a theoretical belief in God’s overriding sovereignty in our lives, to a working pragmatism which simply assumes that the little decisions are ours to make. Curiously, no one little decision is very important, but after thousands of decisions a life has been lived. Thus, though we are not wantonly godless, we are godless nevertheless -- not deliberately godless, but godless by default.

It is ironic that while we believers are not blatant violators of the Ten Commandments at a personal level, we live in a world whose values are grounded in a materialistic hedonism that is alien to the spirit of God’s law. Our day-to-day pragmatic so-called "value-neutral" decisions are ranked in importance by the practical needs of such a world. After all, it’s in our world that our day-to-day decisions must be made; it’s not the Garden of Eden we face each day. Indeed, we cannot but be, extensions of our world, especially since God’s law is not written on our hearts.

Jeremiah likened God to Israel’s "husband." But what kind of marriage is possible if it is necessary for the marriage counselor to sleep between husband and wife? Jeremiah lived during the period in which the written Deuteronomic law first appeared -- shortly before the exile -- and he opposed that law precisely because he believed it was such an obtrusive "counselor." If marriage provides the most adequate analogy for God’s intentions, then God must finally cease acting through intermediaries. The written law was but the last of a series of futile efforts to bring Israel to God’s marriage bed by means of intermediaries. Priests, even prophets, had finally been only "middle men," seeking to bring God to people. It is a hopeless task. As Jeremiah realized, only God can bring God.

Caught in the throes of such a Jeremianic impasse, the righteous are desperate for the fire of God’s law to be emblazoned on their hearts and in their minds, bowels and glands. But in response to their crying need, what does God do? God sends an infant -- an infant to do God’s work! We get nothing like the empowering covenant we longed for and hoped for. We get another mouth to feed, another bottom to diaper, and finally another body to bury.

God apparently has no immediate desire miraculously to soothe the existential anguish of the righteous. Jeremiah’s vision of a new covenant appears still to be "on hold." God’s law is far from being planted firmly within us. However, as a down payment on the promise Jeremiah discerned, God was determined to share with his creatures the burdens of the old covenant. God’s only answer to the dilemmas of our existence is his concrete commitment to our plight in the plight of his son. God is no distant empathetic fellow sufferer. God has become an infant. The righteousness of God hangs by Jesus’ umbilical cord. It may indeed be a rope of fragile, withering flesh, but it is strong enough to hold God’s moral claim on the universe.

This is hardly the time for self-pity. There is work to be done, an infant to be cared for, and incredible joy over the new birth to contend with. Think of it! To such as we, God has entrusted the burden of his own righteousness. The very wisdom of the universe slipped from Mary’s womb and, suckling at her breast, is ours to protect and nurture.

God’s great vulnerability and need have become more important than our blindness and sin. The God child’s need forces us to grow up fast. Chastise God though we may for thrusting on us the burdens of parenthood before we are ready, the situation does not change. We still have the baby Jesus on our hands -- to tend to, to love and, in time, as proud parents will, to boast about. It’s a sobering thought -- as surrogate parents, you and I are about as good as Jesus, on balance, is likely to find. If the love of God cannot be advanced through such as we, it is not likely ever to be advanced. It is time for us to grow out of our juvenile, neurotic absorption with our frailties and begin assuming our roles as God’s earthly parents.