An Old Concept: Forgiveness

October 20, 2019 ~ Proper 24 ~ Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost ~ Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8 at Elijah Kellogg Church.

An Old Concept: Forgiveness

“No longer shall they need to teach one another or remind one another to listen to Yahweh or to know Yahweh. All of them— high and low alike— from the least of them to the greatest shall all listen to me, says Yahweh; for I will forgive their misdeeds, their iniquity, and remember their transgressions no more.” — Jeremiah 31:34.

There are numerous points which can be made about this reading. I’ll try to limit my comments to a few. But first, I need to reiterate what was said when this passage was introduced. It is questionable to give these words a preemptive Christian reading, to interpret Jeremiah as offering a prophecy concerning the New Testament.

This is, rather, a call to renewal for the time in which it was written, for the people to whom it was written. That presents an obvious question. Why does attaching the concept of foretelling about the New Testament and Jesus fail to be an accurate assessment?

The answer has two parts. I mentioned this first one when I was last here. Prophecy in Scripture simply does not address the future.

True Biblical prophecy, by definition, speaks not about predicting but about God’s everlasting truths— principles like equity, justice, freedom, love. These are principles God holds dear both at the time the prophecy was proclaimed and right now.

If that’s the case, why is it said in the Gospels Jesus fulfills prophecy? Indeed, why might anyone interpret Biblical Prophecy as a foretelling, prediction? (Slight pause.)

I think this story might help explain why some might label the content of Scripture as a foretelling of the future. My story involves my father and two people who were celebrities in their time. If you were born after— say about 1965— you might not know these names and may have to Google them. So I’ll offer a word of explanation.

The first name is Jack Benny, comedian. Benny started in Vaudeville, moved to radio in the 1930s and then to television in the ’50s and ’60s.

His shows, radio and television, were a blend of sketch comedy and variety. Among the troupe of players who participated in both the variety and the sketch comedy was a singer/actor, an Irish tenor, who went by the name of Dennis Day.

Now both my Father and Dennis Day were proud graduates of Manhattan College in the Bronx. Whenever Day appeared on the screen of our old black and white television in the ’50s, my Dad would point at the TV and proudly say, “He’s a Manhattan graduate.”

As a kid I remember thinking, “Why does he say that every time he sees Dennis Day? What does it mean?” All these years later I think I can tell you what my father was trying to say. (Slight pause.)

“Dennis Day is a member of my tribe. I am a member of his tribe. He’s famous, on TV, and we have a real connection. We belong to the same tribe.” (Slight pause.)

You see, tribal connections need not make any logical sense. Tribal connections— this wanting to be connected with others— tribal connections with those who we think are in the same tribe we are, produce visceral, emotional responses.

So when some see these words as foretelling the future, what is often happening is a visceral, emotional, tribal, satisfying connection. Jeremiah must be pointing to Jesus since the new covenant must be the New Testament. But tribalism— even that kind of tribalism— is not what prophecy is about.

Therefore to reiterate the obvious question: why does the New Testament say Jesus fulfills prophecy from the Hebrew Scripture? As I said there are two reasons. The first reason is we take the events of the New Testament too literally in part due to tribalism.

But if Jesus does fulfill a prophecy it is not about a tribalism of separateness— a tribalism which says ‘this is my tribe so only people like me can be a part of it’— New Testament against Old Testament tribalism, for instance. The tribe of Jesus is a tribe of inclusiveness. The Old and the New are one. God says all people are a part of my tribe. [1]

All that points to the second reason a foretelling of the future— a prophecy about Old verses New or a prophecy about Jesus— is not the issue being considered in Jeremiah. Indeed, the foretelling to be found in Jeremiah is the kind of prophecy I’ve already addressed— eternal truth embraced by God. So what is the eternal truth found here?

In an effort to explain the foretelling of eternal truth, I will use the words of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

In the beginning— the beginning: the Hebrew Scriptures came first and can be summed up this way: they exist to express a theology. It is the theology of covenant love.

The next point: in the New Testament the earliest writings are not the Gospels. The true letters of Paul are the earliest writings. And what is it Paul writes about? Paul writes scarcely a word about the life of Jesus. Paul writes about theology.

This next step will surprise some people. The Gospels are not stories about the life of Jesus. Rather, the Gospels do exactly what Paul did but in a different way. The Gospels, contrary to populist belief, are theological discussions which use a story about someone Whose name is Jesus as a means of conveying theology.

How so? An example: in the Gospels this Jesus is assigned two names. Jesus is a Greek word. In Hebrew the name of Jesus is Yehoshu’a. Yehoshu’a means “God saves.” The other name given to Jesus is Emmanuel. Emmanuel means God is with us.

To be clear, Jesus was real. Jesus lived and was resurrected. But even the names of Jesus recorded in the Gospels tell us these writings are not about story. These writings are about theology.

In fact, we should not read the Gospel stories and ask, ‘what does this story say?’ Rather, we need to ask, ‘what does this mean; what is the theological point being made here?’

And the question ‘what is the theological point being made’ brings us back to Jeremiah’s words. (Quote:) “…I will forgive their misdeeds, their iniquity, and remember their transgressions no more.”

Earlier I said a prophet speaks about God’s everlasting truths— the principles of love, equity, justice, freedom— truths which God holds dear right now. So if there is any prophecy here, it is not a reference to a new covenant as in the New Testament.

Prophecy is not a true prophecy unless it can speak to us right here, right now. And this prophecy is about an eternal truth God holds dear— covenant love. And covenant love is always and must always be enwrapped with and by forgiveness.

(Quote:) “I will forgive….” So the prophecy Jesus fulfills is a prophecy of forgiveness— an eternal truth of God.

For us perhaps what we especially need to hear in this prophecy is forgiving one another is an imperative. Why forgive? (Quote:) “I will be their God; they shall be my people.”

Who is this God? This God is a God Who speaks to us right here, right now and for Whom forgiveness is an imperative. This is a God of peace, freedom, joy, liberty, hope, equity, opportunity, love, a forgiving God of eternal covenant. Amen.

10/20/2019
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Catholic theologian Richard Rhor says this: ‘Unfortunately, for much of Christianity, faith largely became believing statements to be true or false— intellectual assent— instead of giving people concrete practices so they could themselves know how to open up (which is having faith), hold on (which is having hope) and allow an in-filling from another source (which is the love God offers).’”

BENEDICTION: God has made us partners in covenant. Let us truly be people of God. Let us be guided by prayer, by study, by love, by justice. Let us continually praise the God of the universe who loves us. May our trust grow as we are empowered to do the work of God in this world which is the dominion of God. Amen.

[1] It should be noted that at the Children’s Time the pastor had a bunch of Baseball hats from different teams and asked people to identify the team. The point was God does not root for one team— that would be tribalism. God is for every team. God is for everyone.

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