open book on a table

“On Our Hearts”

A sermon drawn from Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Luke 18:1-8

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[Jeremiah 31:31-34] is a really beautiful text, and a hopeful one, this picture of a world in which everyone knows God and has God’s law written on their hearts.

More precisely, everyone has God’s teaching, God’s torah, written on their hearts. “Teaching” is a better translation of that word.

It gives us an image of a world in which everyone shares God’s deepest desires, is on the same page with what God cares about, what God wants and works for, what delights God – all in all, what God loves.

A world that reflects the love that God is.

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Because when we talk about the “heart,” not as cardiologists but as poets, we usually mean something about the center of ourselves, the seat of our will or feelings … when we say we “have a heart for something,” we usually mean we like or want that, or we care about it; if we say that someone is in our hearts, it means something like “we love that person,” we want what’s best for them.

And we think about them, too, not just in a clinical way, but think about them with affection or care. Because we do think about things that are “on our hearts,” as well as feel about them. Our thoughts and our feelings are inseparably connected, in real life, so that if something feels important to us, we also give it a lot of thought, and if something is “on our minds,” we are likely to have some pretty strong feelings about it, too. It’s how humans are made.

The ancient Hebrews used their word for “heart” in both of those senses, as a matter of fact: the “heart” was a center both for how people felt and what people thought. So that, in the gospels, when someone asks Jesus what is the greatest commandment, and he answers (according to our Greek texts) that it’s to love the HOLY ONE our God with all our heart – our feeling or willing selves – and all our soul – our spiritual selves – and all our mind – our thinking selves – and all our strength – our physical and substantial selves, the Greek language needs four words to get across an idea that Hebrew gets across in three.

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Historically, Christians have thought of this as a prophecy that points forward to Jesus, because Jesus also talks about a “new covenant” in the gospel of Luke, and Paul uses that same “new covenant” language in talking about communion in 1 Corinthians.

Presbyterians don’t use that “new covenant” language very much, because we usually go along with the early Christian theologian Augustine, and also with the Reformation theologian Calvin, and think of God as having ONE covenant with humanity, a covenant of grace, that has taken new, different, specific forms throughout history – a covenant of grace in which we ourselves are included thanks to the grace of Jesus Christ, and thanks to having the faith to trust that grace. Something for which we’re very grateful, we would add.

So for us, when we hear these words about the “new covenant,” they sound like a description of a renewal or a restoration of that covenant of grace, something that at last achieves what God has been wanting for humanity all along. We would agree, I think, that this renewal becomes possible in a whole new kind of way, thanks to Jesus.

But … we would probably also agree that Jeremiah’s prophecy still feels unfulfilled … like we’re still trying to live into that.

Because we probably don’t feel like we’re actually living in that beautiful, hopeful world, yet. We still seem to be living in a world in which people do say to each another “know the HOLY ONE,” “get right with God,” etc., and need to say that, because there seem to be more than a few people who don’t seem to know God very well. We might even include ourselves in that group, some days.

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That might make us wonder … what does it take, practically speaking, to get God’s teaching “into” us? How does God’s teaching get “written on our hearts”? Is that something we just have to wait for? Are we supposed to be … doing something, to help make that happen? How would we know … whether what we’re doing is helping?

We probably don’t think it means that God’s law is literally “within us,” the way our hearts or our bones are within our bodies. We know that it’s not literally “written on our hearts,” in a way that someone could read, if they took an x-ray. We know it has to mean something else.

Although some of the things we care about, or love, feel like they are built in to us – like smiling at one of these recent sunny fall days, or at a toddler, or rushing to help someone who’s fallen. That kind of empathy feels to us like it comes from within us … and could be part of what Jeremiah is talking about.

And then, if we’re used to folding our hands, bowing our heads, and closing our eyes when we pray … or are used to saying grace before meals … or have gotten used to stopping ourselves when we’re about to make an unkind remark about someone, and then, instead, trying to say whatever we need to say in the kindest thing we can think of – because that’s something we might have practiced doing, we have some reflexes that feel like they are in us almost that same way. Almost automatic responses, that just feel natural to us, or at least like second nature to us …

So something else we’re likely to think of is that having God’s teaching “written on our hearts” has something to do with “learning things by heart.” The way we learn things we’ve gone over and over so often that we’ve memorized them, like our times tables, or, when it comes to “God’s teaching,” like the words to the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm or the Doxology. That is one real way we can have something “within” us, and if we have learned words from the Bible or from church by heart, we’ll also know that sometimes those words will come into our minds at critical moments, and sometimes that’s comforting, or reassuring, or might even help keep us out of trouble, depending on what the words are, and on what the situation is.

This is like the Cherokee Indian story – people may have heard it before – about a grandmother who is teaching her grandchild, and she says, “a fight is going on inside of you – and inside of me – a fight between two wolves – one of the wolves is good – kind and generous and honest and brave – the other one is bad – selfish, unkind, dishonest, envious” – and the child says, but grandmother, which one will win? And she says … the one you feed.

We all suppose, I think, that “feeding” the good wolf means turning towards those good qualities, choosing them, over and over … again, because that repetition, that persistence, seems to be the main way we have of writing things on our hearts … or of having things written on our hearts …

Almost like the way the widow in Jesus’ story persists in asking the judge to grant her justice …

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That may not seem like the same thing at all, though …

Because the narrator tells us that Jesus’ story is about prayer. How we always need to pray, and not to lose heart. Granted, prayer does involve turning towards God, and “always praying” must involve turning towards God over and over again, choosing to trust God to care about people and want to hear from us, instead of assuming we don’t matter that much to God, assuming this only concerns us …  

Still, when we hear this story, we may automatically think the judge is supposed to represent God, because he’s the authority figure, and he’s the one who is going to grant a request, or else not grant it … which is how we tend to think about God …

And we may automatically think the widow is supposed to represent us, to represent people who pray, because she needs something and wants something and she’s trying to get the judge to grant her request …

But then, something about that doesn’t work very well …

Because … it’s not hard to see that it’s the widow, rather than the judge, who has God’s teaching within her, written on her heart – she’s the one who knows what’s right; she’s the one who wants what’s right; she’s the one for whom getting justice is personal, really matters; she’s actually one of those people who is hungering and thirsting for justice, or righteousness, herself, one of the people Jesus elsewhere has called “blessed;”

So when we think about it that way, it’s really the widow who is more like a representative of God in the story.

The widow cares about justice. We assume she wants justice for herself. And from what we know about the ancient world, in which this story takes place, we can probably also assume that she needs that justice. She’s a widow, after all, and this would put her in a vulnerable economic and social position. Maybe she has to depend on this judge for a favorable ruling in some matter of inheritance, or property, or money. Maybe, something that will affect whether she’ll have enough money to live on. Or how she’ll manage to live at all.

And then, because this justice is personal for her, something she herself cares about, she keeps working at it, in the only way she has available to her, which is to keep pestering this judge, who is evidently the one person who can actually make a difference in the situation …

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The judge doesn’t care about any of this: not justice, not the widow or her problems, not even about God or God’s teaching or God’s commandments.

Jesus starts out with the description of the judge, as someone who neither “fears God nor has any concern for people” – making him just the opposite of someone who has embraced the greatest commandment. And he hasn’t embraced the one Jesus said was next to it, either, the one to love our neighbor as ourselves.

That teaching is not on his heart, or within him, in any way. So he can only be convinced to do the right thing by being pestered night and day until he’s fed up with the constant nagging, and realizes that the only way he’s going to get what he cares about, which seems to be, to be left alone, is to give this pesky widow what she wants.

This doesn’t seem like a very good image of God! We can’t really believe God is much like this judge: uncaring, unconcerned, uninterested. We don’t really believe the only reason God does anything for people is because they have driven God crazy with their incessant nagging – do we?

The description of the judge seems more like a description of some … person … for whom the teaching that comes from God is purely external, a law not written on his heart. Until the widow finally makes it personal for him, by getting him to share a little of her own suffering.

We are used to thinking that the persistent character in this story is people, or is supposed to be … but maybe the persistent character in this relationship is more like God.

God who is persistent enough to love and care about humanity – about us – even when we keep doing the opposite of what God knows would be best for us.

God who is persistent enough to become one of us – to enter the human world in the person of Jesus Christ – to share everything people experience, care about, love, to face all the same challenges and struggles, to know us inside and out – in the process, to enable humanity to know God better than ever before.

God who is persistent enough to keep calling us and asking us and encouraging us to turn towards God in prayer, to listen to God’s word, to turn in the direction of the Holy Spirit …

So that, as we do that, we will come more and more to share God’s vision for human flourishing, share God’s love and care for people – for our neighbors, for righteousness and justice for them – come to take that more and more personally. Come more and more to want what God wants, to love what God loves.

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We know who or what is on our hearts – who or what we love with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength – by who or what we keep turning towards – keep choosing –keep making important. And then, whoever or whatever we keep turning towards does come to be more and more on our hearts …

God keeps asking us to turn towards God.

What we can do is … that.

And, we can keep paying attention to whether we are doing that. Whether we are, persistently, over and over, turning towards God, doing the things that help us learn God’s teaching by heart. Who we are feeding, as the Cherokee story goes. Who is winning the fight in us … the judge in us, or the widow.

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Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Ja gore,” Jakub Hałun, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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