The idea of a “new covenant” of which we read in the passage from the Prophet Jeremiah is not a new idea although chapter thirty-one, verse thirty-one, is the only explicit reference to such a concept. A new covenant is, however, envisioned in the writings of Hosea, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. In addition, the Christian Scripture speak of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the inauguration of a new covenant or a new dispensation.
The main difference between the two is the notion that the new covenant will be written on the hearts or on the flesh of the people while the old covenant was written on tablets of stone. In other words, the new covenant is best expressed by its association with the heart. People of the Middle East look upon the human body as being composed of three parts or zones. The heart is the zone that processes the information gathered by eyes and ears and which in forms our speech and action. The truly holy person is seen as one in whom the three zones are perfectly integrated.
Perhaps even more important is a later verse in today’s passage from the Prophet Jeremiah; namely, the last part of verse thirty-four: “for I will forgive their iniquity and no longer remember their sin” (Jeremiah 31:34b). In purely human terms, we have a tendency to maintain that while both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures hold up forgiveness as an obligation, forgetting the sin is not all that necessary or even possible. Indeed, all of us can probably attest to the fact that we bear the scars of the slights and injuries which we have suffered at the hands and tongues of others. Forgetting them and acting as if they never happened leaves us vulnerable to being hurt once again. Consequently, we hang on to the memories while professing the fact that we have forgiven those who have harmed us.
I have often thought that God’s willingness and ability to forget our sins as well as forgive them is part of God’s “perfection.” The word “perfection” carries with it the notion of being “without flaw.” However, another way to look at “perfection” is to equate it with “completeness.” The “perfect human” is the “complete” or “integral” human. In this sense, there is a connection with the Middle Eastern notion of holiness as being integrated. God’s perfection lies in the fact that not only does God forgive us when we express sorrow for our sins, God also sets the memories of those sins aside. Again, this thought is not exclusive to Jeremiah as we read in Isaiah, “It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more” (Isaiah 43:25). Psalm 103 makes the point more poetically but just as emphatically: “Merciful and gracious is the LORD, slow to anger, abounding in mercy. He will not always accuse, and nurses no lasting anger; He has not dealt with us as our sins merit, nor requited us as our wrongs deserve. For as the heavens tower over the earth, so his mercy towers over those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us” (Psalm 103:8-12).
Becoming or being forgetful is often thought to be a sign of aging, of losing our mental acuity. In this case, however, perhaps it would be a step in the right direction if we could not only forgive, but forget.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator