by Father Mike Stubbs
Sometimes it takes a momentous event to grab people’s attention, to make them address the needs of a situation.
For example, after the Titanic sank in 1912, public outcry led to several important changes in maritime law.
An increase in the number of lifeboats carried on ship was mandated. The International Ice Patrol was established, to alert ships to the presence of icebergs. All ships were required to have a radio on board, in constant operation. In this way, some good could come out of that tragedy.
When the prophet Jeremiah was uttering the words that we would later hear as Sunday’s first reading — Jer 31:31-34 — his country was undergoing a crisis. The capital city, Jerusalem, had either been destroyed or was soon to suffer that fate. Its citizens would be taken into exile in Babylonia. Everything was in ruins.
In the midst of this devastation, Jeremiah sees a glimmer of hope. The people of Israel have reached the bot- tom. The only direction to go now is up. That is why the prophet foresees a future restoration of Jerusalem: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when the city shall be rebuilt as the Lord’s” (Jer 31:38).
Jeremiah sees good eventually coming out of this tragedy. He believes that the relationship between God and the people of Israel will improve and become stronger, as we hear in Sunday’s reading: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
Jeremiah compares this new covenant with the covenant established through Moses: “It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt.” That covenant arose, not out of tragedy, but out of a moment of salvation. The Israelites escaped into the desert, to be pursued by the Egyptian army, only to wander for 40 years before entering into the promised land. It was a turbulent time for the people of Israel, a time with many difficulties and hard- ships, even though it would bring them salvation.
Jeremiah looks forward to this new covenant also following a moment of salvation. God would rescue the people of Israel from captivity in Babylon and have them return to the promised land. But this time, the covenant would take a different form. Instead of external laws, the covenant would be internalized. The hearts of the people would be so softened by their experience of salvation, by God’s love for them, that the covenant would be written upon their hearts: “I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts.”
Did Jeremiah’s prophecy come true? Or, did people fall into sin again, as they had done under the previous covenant? That is not for us to judge. Certainly, human beings are imperfect. At the same time, Jeremiah’s words continue to offer us hope for a fresh start, for a renewed relationship with God. As Christians, we see that happening above all through Jesus Christ. When we experience the salvation which he won for us, our hearts can be softened in such a way that God’s law will be written on them. Then, the words of Jeremiah come true: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”