Sunday, March 25, 2012

Best Friends Forever

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband. (Jeremiah 31.31-32)


It was one of those minor spats that flare up out of nowhere and sputter out quickly. Except this one didn’t. Evidently both Walt and I had been keeping close score of the other’s negligence, while ignoring our own. It began as typically silly tit-for-tat—“How hard can it be to rinse off a plate and put it in the dishwasher?” “About as hard as picking up your shoes and putting them back in the closet.” But it soon turned into scathing renditions of painful incidents left unaddressed. In no time, years of happiness shattered into a pile of resentment and reproach. We were finished. We took to opposite ends of the apartment, mulling over the realization that what we believed was true love had actually been a delusion. We hated ourselves for getting suckered by a decade of sweet talk and surface romance, when nothing of the sort was happening underneath.

An hour or so passed and Walt came out to the living room. “I don’t want to argue anymore,” he announced. “But I have to say this. If we break up, I’m going to need a best friend to help me get through it. And that’s gonna be a big problem for me, since you’re the best friend I’ve ever had.” That’s all it took. Crying and laughing, we fell into one another’s arms and promised we would remain best friends for life for the sake of our love, and we would remain lovers for life for the sake of our friendship. It was a new promise—one that we’d never have made early on, as we had no idea how important our friendship would be in holding us together. And it taught us a lesson we’ve never forgot: our relationship depends on trust in one another’s friendship. I need to be free to tell my best friend, “Walt’s out of line,” and Walt needs to be able to tell his best friend, “Tim’s not treating me right.”

More Than a Lover

Scripture initially frames God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants as a family matter. The promise of nationhood is treated as a closely guarded secret, a hidden legacy that will come to fruition in due time. That changes once God ordains Moses to speak to Israel on God’s behalf. When Israel leaves Egypt as a people, the union between the nation and its Maker assumes the nature of a love affair. True, the desert experience is no honeymoon. Yet the interaction between God and Israel smacks of a young couple learning to live together. When times are good, they couldn’t be happier. But let something go wrong and the whining and recriminations and acting out start. There’s a whole lot of “Why won’t you do as I ask?” (God) and “What have You done for us lately?” (Israel) and “See what a mess you’ve made!” (both) in the desert.

Though God loves Israel supremely and Israel loves God more than anything, they’re not the best of friends. And that puts Moses in the awkward position of go-between. As Israel’s first national prophet, he’s the template for every prophet who follows. When God wants to confide in best-friend Israel about lover-Israel’s faults, God speaks through its prophets. The problem is Israel’s not very good at detecting when God is talking Friend-to-friend. It tends to dismiss God’s frustrations—as if God’s a cranky mate picking another fight. Then, when God does come down hard on Israel’s unfaithfulness, the people sink into helpless despair. They’re finished. God has abandoned them. It’s all turned into rubble.

This goes on for centuries, to the point that few offices in Israel are as thankless as the prophet’s. By the time Jeremiah takes the position around 626 BCE, the prophet’s role more closely resembles a couples’ counselor than divine oracle. In fact, we call Jeremiah “the weeping prophet” simply because most of his time is spent mourning Israel’s infidelity and the suffering it brings to God and God’s people. The relationship obviously isn’t working and Jeremiah doesn’t know how to persuade Israel that God is more than a Lover. God is its Best Friend for life.

Fortunately—and out of necessity—God comes to Jeremiah’s rescue in chapter 31 by offering to forge a new relationship with Israel. “The days are coming when I will make a new covenant,” God says, bitterly noting that Israel failed to honor the old one, “though I was their husband.” (v31-32) Under the new covenant, God will remove the hindrances that blocked Israel’s attentiveness to God’s wishes and desires. “I will put My law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people,” God promises. “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest… for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Essentially, God vows to take it upon God’s Self to ensure that a mutual, enduring friendship evolves to stabilize and nourish what’s proven to be a tempestuous, often one-sided love affair.

A New and Right Spirit

While this is a radically new promise—coming from a law-obsessed God to a rebellious people, no less—it’s not a particularly novel idea. Indeed, the Old Testament runs rampant with repentant figures who plead with God to find a better way to make this relationship work. In Psalm 51, written in the wake of his disastrous decision to steal Bathsheba by having her husband killed, David confesses he’s a failure in God’s eyes. “For my transgressions, and my sin are ever before me. Against You, You alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight,” he cries. As his poem goes on, however, we sense a tonal shift that suggests David has turned from talking to God as a guilty lover and he now beseeches God Friend-to-friend. “Teach me wisdom in my secret heart,” he prays in verse 6, slowly building up to verse 10: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” In terms of David’s relationship with his Maker, it’s the ultimate cry for help. He seeks more than a lover’s forgiveness. He asks God to be his Friend. And God responds, not only to David, not only to Israel, but also to us, promising, “I will write My law on your heart. You won’t need anyone to tell you how to love and honor Me. You’ll want to do it because we will be lovers and friends.”

A new and right spirit is more than a longing for reconciliation that we rekindle when we fall short in our faithfulness. It is God’s promise to us, spoken from God’s own mouth and written in our hearts by God’s own hand. It’s the promise we reach for when rushes to judgment overtake us. It’s the pledge we rely on when unhealthy desires and tendencies catch us off-guard. It’s the covenant that cannot be broken when our brokenness threatens to break God and us apart. When we can’t find it in our hearts to forgive ourselves, we look to the promise of love and forgiveness God eternally etched in the wells of our beings. We stand on its assurance that this relationship will work and it will last. God and us: best friends forever and lovers for life.

God’s new covenant in Jeremiah salvages the broken relationship with our Maker by inscribing the terms of an enduring, mutual friendship in our hearts.

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Sherry Peyton said...

So brilliantly done Tim. This was one of your best! I am so grateful for the tie in to Psalm 51. I shall never quite recite it the same way, or with quite the same thoughts. Your command of the history of the times is so great that truly, I never stop learning.

I ran across this site today, and perusing through the index thought you might find something references useful. While it is a Catholic resource, favors the Catholic first, and then adds lots and lots of links that are non-Catholic. Some are from writers I'm familiar with and some not.

Tim said...

Sherry, once again--as always--I'm grateful beyond words for your kindness. This understanding of Psalm 51 is new to me, too, made possible by its smart juxtaposition with Jeremiah in our lectionary. I was bowled over by the idea that God's promise was in every way an answer to the prayers of David and so many others. It gladdened me to read the prophetic text as a declaration of partnership between God and us!

Thank you so much for the link. It's a veritable treasure trove that I'm eager to dive into. The Catholic content will no doubt be as valuable to me as the rest, as the theology is the same and, as I've said so often, the RCC is the Mother of us all!

I trust you're enjoying this glorious spring and the joy of new life is surrounding you.

Many blessings and much thanks,