There is something profoundly significant in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) Reading for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Actually this is a high point in Old Testament theology when God declares, “I will make a new covenant”. This would be a covenant different from the moral code given at Sinai and written on stone tablets.
God will put the new covenant “within”, in the hearts of God’s people. Not on stone tablets but in human hearts. This is reminiscent of Ezekiel’s prophecy where, again, God promises: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36-26-27).
This is the same promise in Ezekiel 11:19-20: “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God”.
However one looks at it, God is speaking of a new beginning; a beginning that is different.
What is the difference? In the new covenant God’s people will know God, not because they have kept the law – which they have failed to keep anyway – but because God forgives “their iniquity, and remembers their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). They will know God from the perspective of forgiveness of sins, not from being sinless.
Being sinless is a human perspective. It is a perspective that is contradictory to the Psalm for this Sunday where David declares: “Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb” (Psalm 51:5). This is, indeed a penitential psalm, the foremost of the penitential psalms. The petitioner (David) can only look up to God and pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit in me”.
This is possible in God’s new covenant in which God declares, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).