- First Reading Jeremiah 31:31-34
- Psalm 51:1-12
- Or alternate Psalm Psalm 119:9-16
- Second Reading Hebrews 5:5-10
- Gospel John 12:20-33
The Lord says, in today’s lection from Jeremiah: “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.”
The Psalmist writes “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
Emily Dickinson, Woody Allen, and Selena Gomez, among, I’m sure many others, have each written, said, or sung “The heart wants what it wants.”
People have defended themselves or others against charges of racism, sexism, and abuse on the basis of what is in their heart.
Countless people have said that they are Christians because they have “accepted Jesus into their hearts,” referring to texts like those in today’s readings from Jeremiah and Psalm 51.
I do not think we all know, and I am certain we do not all agree, on the meaning of “heart.” I know we do not use “heart” the same way that Jeremiah and the Psalmist use “heart.”
In contemporary culture, we use talk of the heart in contrast to the brain. When we feel strong emotions, we can feel our own heart rate change, and so we talk about the heart as the seat of our emotions, separate from the seat of our reason.
We talk about the heart as something distinct, separate from logic and evidence.
We talk about the heart as something hidden, something that can only be known by people close to us, and therefore something that others should not, cannot judge. Woody Allen, in a 2001 interview, defended his decision to leave his wife, Mia Farrow, for her then-18-year-old adopted daughter, Soon Yi Previn by saying “The heart wants what it wants.”
When we do this, we are using talk of the heart as a way to hide. We use it to hide from ourselves when we talk about our heart wanting something even as we know it is bad for us, or wrong. In the chorus of her song, “The Heart Wants What It Wants,” Selena Gomez sings “There’s a million reasons I should give you up/but the heart wants what it wants/the heart wants what it wants.”
We use it to hide from others when we say we, or someone else is not mean, or bad, or cruel, in their heart, when we say of someone “I know their heart and they couldn’t do that” to try to silence an accusation we do not want to hear, or, paradoxically, we say “You can’t know what is in their heart” to try to put someone beyond judgement, as if to say we cannot judge a person’s actions because we cannot know the intent.
I am avoiding specific examples, beyond, Woody Allen, and Selena Gomez, because I am sure we can think of many, many times. Times that others have told us that something we saw could not have happened because it was not in someone’s heart and also times where we have been on the other side, excusing our own or another person’s actions based on the contents of the heart.
This frustrates me, and, when we pull scripture into this way of talking about the heart, we are abusing scripture.
Jeremiah’s prophesy is not an opportunity to hide.
The Psalm is not an opportunity to hide.
Scripture is not a shield to ignore the effects of our own or other’s actions.
When Jeremiah, or the Psalmist, or the other Biblical authors write of the heart, they are not writing of one half of the heart-brain, or heart-mind combination.
The heart was considered the seat of both reason and emotions. The heart was the core of a person’s self, and so the contents of a person’s heart were not something hidden, were not something distinct from their reason or actions, but was integral to it.
God did not write the new covenant on the Israelites heart so they could hide it, but so that they could always carry it with them. Jeremiah is writing around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians. This section of Jeremiah, sometimes known as the “Book of Consolations” is written to the Israelites following the destruction and carries the promise that the community will survive the loss of Jerusalem, the loss of the Temple, and the loss of the stone tablets Moses brought down from Sinai, on which God had recorded the prior covenant.
Writing the covenant on our hearts is not a means to let us hide it from the world but enables us to always carry it with us wherever we might go.
Writing the covenant on our hearts does not excuse our actions, does not allow us to hide behind a promise of a good intent, or an assurance that we have accepted Jesus in our heart, but demands we always demonstrate our faith and our faithfulness because we cannot leave the heart behind. We cannot separate ourselves from our heart, and so the things we do are the true demonstration of what is in our heart. It is easy to say we have accepted Jesus in our heart, but unless that leads us to start acting more like Jesus, to start working to follow the way of Jesus, those words are empty. We will still fall short. We will still sin. We will not, cannot achieve perfection in this life. I do not mean to suggest that perfection is the criteria for judgement, but we are all called to make the effort, to walk the path toward Christ and toward a new covenant with God when, as the Lord says through Jeremiah, “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, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”