February 16, 2014
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
The word covenant is another churchy word that we use all the time, but may not have thought much about what it means.
The Hebrew word translated for us as covenant has multiple meanings in the Bible. It gets used in various situations:
- A contract between Jacob and Laban (Gen 31:44)
- An alliance of friendship between David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:3)
- A peace pact between Abraham and whole tribe of Amorites (Genesis 14:13)
- A bond of Marriage (Proverbs 2:17 or Malachi 2:14)
The richest use of the word, and most central to the Old Testament is the covenant at Sinai, summarized in the Ten Commandments, and other covenants echo it.
The way the Ten Commandments are written is surprisingly similar to a treaty between nations in the ancient Middle East. It certainly is not a Parity Treaty, for any covenant between God and humanity is not a covenant between equals. It is closer to a Vassal Treaty, what a larger, stronger nation would create with a smaller, less powerful kingdom.
Such treaties started off with a preamble, talking about who the parties to the treaty are. Then there is a list of the acts of kindness or forbearance by the king of the greater nation as a reason for the obedience of the vassal kingdom (“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”). Then there are Demands, the duties the smaller one is bound to keep (the commandments). Then they list witnesses to the covenant, usually the gods of each nation, followed by a listing of curses and blessings: curses if the terms are not fulfilled and blessings if they are.
This last part sounds a lot like our passage from Deuteronomy this morning. Except that the covenant between God and Israel necessarily has some differences, specifically that God is the giver of the covenant, God is the witness to the covenant (hard to begin a monotheistic religion with other gods invited to witness the inauguration…), and is the source of the curses and blessings.
God is both one party to the covenant, and the guarantor of the covenant; to whom else can Israel appeal?
Such a covenant bound God and Israel together. But then came 587 BC (BCE): The destruction of the Temple and the desolation of Jerusalem and the exile. How is God still with them when all ritual practices centered around the Temple are gone, and the promise of protection for a chosen people is clearly found wanting?
Such a profound break in the covenant required answers. It was a trying time. Much of the thinking in Deuteronomy came from this time of difficulty. And instead of being a time of desolation and despair, it was one of the most prolific times in the writings we now have in the Bible. It was a time when the people reexamined their faith and the prophets spoke intense words of hope.
Some of the important elements that came out of this time of exile are:
- Even in exile and grief, Israel has a profound witness that says that God’s ultimate covenant is unilateral, given by God, not dependent upon Israel’s faithfulness but finally rooted in God’s faithfulness.
- They give the world the gift of lament. As Uncle Walt (Brueggemann) would say: those who cannot weep cannot hope. So they give the world the gift of hope, as well.
- They proclaim that even in the midst of terrible affliction, God is God, not the affliction, not the afflicters, not the fear or terror of exile, not even death.
- They affirm that even if covenant is broken beyond repair by Israel’s unfaithfulness, God gives a new covenant because of God’s deep love, not Israel’s worthiness.
It is in this context of Covenant that Jesus preaches this sermon. It is in this context that admonitions such as these are made. If you have something against a brother or a sister (which can mean a blood relative or a member of your community), speaking words of insult and verbal/emotional injury and murder are placed together on a continuum, and in the light of the covenant of God, Jesus says that each of these breaks God’s covenant.
Looking at a woman with a lustful eye, committing adultery and divorce are placed on a continuum and Jesus say these destroy covenant as well.
Oaths that try and use God as guarantor also fail because God is the guarantor of God’s covenant not of our promises.
It is easy to point to divorce or murder as the problems, and they are, but I think they are also a dodge, trying to avoid our own times of calling people fools or looking with a lustful eye.
We know that the public faces of divorce in Jesus’ day were Caesar and Herod and other Roman leaders who married for political gain and divorced on a whim and remarried so they could trade up on the Roman political ladder.
The public faces of violence were the Roman Empire and the militant Jewish opposition to Rome.
But you and I are just as involved in the keeping of covenant, with God, with one another, with creation, with our own body, mind and spirit. Covenant, like marriage, is not a choice made once and done. It is a choice made every day, and it is made up of hundreds of other choices, both large and small.
Instructions to cut off parts of the body that threaten to damage covenant are surely hyperbolic. But they point out how important this is, how this is a matter of health, a matter of life and death.
In all of this, we have the backdrop of God’s faithfulness, regardless of our own mistakes, our own failings, our own difficulties and stiffneckedness. In all of this, we find even if, especially if, covenant has been broken beyond human repair, God is willing and able to make all things new.
This is our light in the darkness. This is our hope even in times of lament. This is our Good News.
Thanks be to God.