If you’ve ever spent any amount of time on the phone with customer service of a major cell phone carrier these days, you know just how difficult it can be to get out of a contract.
In fact, some companies have built their entire business model around not having contracts simply to lure customers who have been burned by overages and early termination fees.
It’s true, I’ve witnessed otherwise sane people completely lose their cool when talking on the phone with these so-called customer care representatives. (Okay, if I’m telling the truth, I have lost my cool when talking to them). The process can, indeed, be infuriating.
The same could be said if you’ve ever had to terminate a lease, negotiate with a debt collector, dissolve a business partnership, or any other arrangement based on a contract. While it may be frustrating, while it may cost you, there is typically some sort of “out” buried deep in the fine print.
When we speak of covenant, however, we enter an entirely different realm of relationship. A covenant is not merely a business transaction, but a means of grace and a matter of the soul.
The metaphor was once suggested to me that a contract is not unlike a paperclip or staple used to join together two pieces of paper. Though they are reasonably secured to one another, they can still be separated with little or no lasting damage. Contracts can be terminated, no harm done.
A covenant, however, is a bit more sticky; more akin to using glue to bond the one to the other. The two pieces of paper cannot be separated without a great deal of damage, and in some sense, the two forever remain a part of one another. A covenant is binding to an extent the contract is not.
In the Book of Jeremiah, when the prophet speaks of a new covenant, he is bearing witness to the nature of God who keeps on covenanting with his people. It is an evolution of the covenant that God has already made, now placed within them, written on their hearts. It is no coincidence that Jeremiah uses the intimate image of marriage to describe how God’s people will each know God, from the least to the greatest. Despite their infidelity, God remains faithful. God is starting anew.
It would be a misunderstanding to speak as if there were only two covenants in Holy Scripture, one old and one new, as if one supersedes the other. In the Old Testament alone there are numerous covenants initiated by God, and in no way does one invalidate the others.
For instance, there are five major covenants identifiable in the Hebrew scriptures, which we commonly call the Old Testament: there’s the Noahic covenant (the promise God makes to Noah following the flood), the Abrahamic covenant (that God would bless Abraham, and that Abraham would, in turn, be a blessing to many), the Mosaic covenant (where God gives the law to Moses), the Davidic covenant (to King David and his descendants forever), and finally, from the passage from Jeremiah which we read today – a New covenant, which God will write upon their hearts, to be their God, and they God’s people.
So, we can see that a covenant is always something that God initiates in order to be in deeper relationship with his creation. It is not a conditional contract, but a faithful promise. Whereas contracts give us an illusion of control, a covenant requires mutual trust and vulnerability: God must trust us, even as we must trust God.
The sacraments of the church are predicated on God’s promise to be present in these “sure and certain means” of God’s grace. Baptism and Eucharist, in particular, are both framed in terms of covenantal relationship. In the baptismal covenant we are given a new identity and pattern for living as children of God.
The language of Eucharistic liturgy is permeated with these images of covenant, recalling the promises God has made to his people Israel, and the covenant Christ institutes on our behalf. When Jesus takes the cup of wine, at the last supper, and tells his disciples “this is my blood of the new covenant” he stands in continuity with the prophet Jeremiah. This is yet another covenant, another new covenant, God calling us again and again to return. When we hear God’s promise that this covenant will be written upon our hearts, we might recall the words of the Eucharistic prayer where we speak of Jesus as the “author of our salvation.”
This week as I read and reread and struggled with the parable Jesus tells about persistence in prayer it dawned on me: what if this is not just a parable about persistence in prayer? What if this is a parable about the persistence of God? What if this parable isn’t telling us to redouble our efforts and pray harder, but to listen to God who persistently seeks justice from us? After all, prayer is not bribing or bothering God to do what we want God to do. Prayer is answering God’s persistent plea for justice. Prayer is insisting (to God and to ourselves) that there is a covenant to keep, even and especially when it has been neglected or forsaken.
This is a difficult truth, I think, for a people who are typically used to interacting with one another through contracts rather than covenants. Breaking God’s covenant does not keep God from continuing to pursue us. In God’s covenant there simply is no escape clause or early termination option. God’s covenant, like God’s love, is unconditional.
When I am honest with myself, it has been my experience that I am more often in the position of the unjust judge than the persistent widow. It is I who ignore God, not God who ignores me. Trapped in a selfish cycle of self preservation I secretly hope that God will eventually just go away and leave me alone and stop bothering me with her messy matters of justice. When that doesn’t work I somehow seek to concoct the right contract or bribe to coerce God into finally giving in to my version of what I want God to be.
But part of what Jesus is telling his disciples here is that prayer is not magic. Nor is prayer a bribe. Prayer is persistence, both God’s and ours. God’s persistent love simply will not relent or leave us to our own devices. Even as the judge conceded, it will eventually wear down our defenses.
The scriptures lay testimony to the faithful persistence of God throughout the ages. Covenant after covenant, grace upon grace, time and time again. God continues to pursue us. And here at this altar Jesus makes with us a new covenant, yet again. We are a covenant people.
The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Proper 24c (2016)