Covenants are not contracts. A contract is a legally binding set of duties and expectations. If the deal is fair, it is a win-win situation. But these agreements are hardly personal. I have signed contracts for car loans without ever meeting the bank representatives. And I have signed many apartment rental contracts and never met the actual property owners. Who cares? Covenants, in contrast, are personal. They define relationships, or at least they ought to.
When God made a covenant with Israel on Sinai, it was intended to be quite personal. In fact, Moses took half the blood of the sacrifice that ratified the covenant and sprinkled it on the people so they would be stained, literally, with the blood of the covenant. As we know, some Israelites understood this, and the law formed their life with God (see Ps 119). A brief tour through the First and Second Book of Kings, however, shows that as the generations passed, many in Israel and its leadership never made the covenant part of them. It never bonded them deeply with God.
This is the context for today’s first reading. Jeremiah predicts a new covenant between God and Israel: “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; for they broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the Lord.” This new covenant will be different. “I will place my law within them, and will write it on their hearts…. All from the least to the greatest shall know me, says the Lord.”
The new covenant will become something interior, indeed part of their hearts. And the people will know him. Ezekiel (16:59 ff; 36:25 ff) and Isaiah (55:3; 59:21; 61:8) also look toward a new covenant, one of communion where the spirit of God would radiate from within.
Both Paul (2 Cor 3-5) and Hebrews (8:8 ff) see Jesus as the direct fulfillment of this prophecy. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount reflects this inner transformation. And when Jesus explicitly announces the new covenant at the Last Supper, we see its depth. It took a long time for the prophecies to come to realization, but they did so in a way more glorious than anyone could have imagined.
For us Christians the new covenant both inspires and challenges. Jesus and his new covenant represent God’s final word and absolute salvation. The covenant challenge is that it has to be part of us, written on our hearts and souls. I am reminded of the crucial conversation between the characters Sister Helen Prejean and the convict on death row, Matthew Poncelet, in the movie “Dead Man Walking.” Poncelet is an unrepentant, angry, arrogant man. He also thinks of himself as a Christian and tells Sister Helen that he is not afraid of dying. He says: “Me and God, we got all things squared away. I know Jesus died on the cross for us. And he’s gonna be there when I appear before God on judgment day.” Helen responds: “Matt, redemption isn’t some kind of free admission ticket that you get because Jesus paid the price. You’ve got to participate in your own redemption. You’ve got some work to do.”
That insight brings us to the Gospel reading. Jesus, referring to the cross and the nature of discipleship says: “Amen, amen, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces great fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me.”
For the new covenant to be fully part of us, it must be fully personal. And for Christians that means we follow him to the cross; this so we can produce “great fruit” both in the present life and the next. Here is a paradox: the new covenant is given absolutely freely as gift, and it costs us nothing less than everything we are.