Learning by Heart

October 20, 2012   Jeremiah 31: 31-34   2 Timothy 3: 14 – 4: 5

Rev. Catherine Purves


     You can learn without learning.  You can study without understanding.  You can know without being changed by that knowledge.  Consider the amazing, but limited, abilities of a parrot.  How or why parrots do what they do is quite mystifying.  They appear to be able to learn to speak by repeating back whatever is said to them.  “Polly want a cracker,”  “Pieces of eight,” and “Walk the plank” are useful comments for a pirate’s parrot to know.  It looks like the bird has actually learned by heart those phrases or exclamations, and can then share those same sentiments, without prompting.  But parrots learn without learning.  They mimic sounds without understanding.  They have not learned by heart, but by some other mechanism which allows them to know something without being changed by that knowledge.  When it comes to our knowledge of the Word of God, we are not meant to be parrots.

     While we’re thinking about animals, let me share with you a few verses from Psalm 32.  This was the Psalm of the day on Friday, so I read it just before I sat down to write my sermon.  That Psalm reads, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.  Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with a bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.”  Horses and mules do not learn by heart any more than parrots do.  They learn by restraint, by being controlled with bit and bridle.  This is another form of learning that isn’t learning.  When it comes to our knowledge of the Word of God, we are not meant to be like horses and mules.

     I’ll venture to guess that we aren’t meant to be like any animal, because I don’t think that any animal can learn by heart in the same way that we can, in the extraordinary way that is described in the 31st chapter of Jeremiah.  The book of the prophet Jeremiah is like a roller coaster ride.  He lived before and during the Babylonian exile.  His early writings are full of gloom and doom as he predicted Jerusalem’s fall and the terrible divine punishment that was planned for Israel.  But after the city was sacked and the people were force-marched to Babylon, Jeremiah’s tone changed as he was given a message of hope for the exiles.  Now we hear the prophecy of a new covenant, a new beginning for Israel in which it is promised that things will be different. 

     The Word of God will not simply be known in the way that a parrot can repeat certain words or phrases.  The Word of God will not function like a bit and bridle that curbs the behavior of horses and mules by restraining their actions through an external law.  In this new covenant, this new relationship that God is establishing with his people, God promises to put the law within them, to write it on their hearts.  This is what learning by heart really means.  It is an internal knowing that transforms us through a relationship that is established by God.  “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.”  This is a knowledge that really is knowledge.  This is learning that is learning.  Understanding the Word of God is ultimately rooted in our new relationship with the living God. 

     I am certainly not against Bible study.  Once upon a time, I knew Hebrew and Greek.  I find biblical commentaries helpful as they try to tease apart the text, analyzing the grammar, and the cultural context of a passage, and the meaning of words.  Thinking about the ways in which scholars have understood the Bible is always interesting and sometimes even inspiring.  But I don’t think we should confuse that kind of learning with what Jeremiah was writing about or with what God was promising through the prophecy of Jeremiah.  You have to be very smart to do this kind of work, but you don’t actually have to be a person of faith.  For that, you must be able to learn the Word of God by heart.

     Now here is an important thing for us to know that those folks who write the useful Bible commentaries are able to tell us.  When we read the word “heart” in the Bible, we are not to think of it as simply the seat of our emotions.  Forget about valentines.  Our identification of the heart with certain feelings, particularly love, but also sorrow and joy, is a modern thing.  For the people of the Old and New Testaments the heart represented far more. 

     The heart was really the totality of a person, what it means to be human in our inner selves.  It includes intellect, memory, desire, determination, courage, and emotions.  The heart held together the physical, the psychological, and the moral life.  So, when God announced to Israel through the prophet Jeremiah that he was going to write the law on their hearts, that had nothing to do with teaching through the manipulation of human feelings.  It was not simply an emotional knowing.  This was a learning of the Word of God that would transform the whole of a person.  If we wanted to say that using modern idioms, we’d have to say that God would be writing the Word on our heart, mind, and will.  So, no parrots, no horses or mules – this is a learning that is only possible for human beings.  And it is a learning that is only made possible through an act of God.

     Now let’s turn to our New Testament reading, keeping in mind what we’ve learned from Jeremiah.  Here we have a letter that was written to instruct a young student of Paul named Timothy.  Paul was trying to teach Timothy how to be a minister and an evangelist, and he was warning him that there would be those who would resist the Word of God.  There would be people who would try to turn the Word of God into words about God.  These people, Paul writes, will have itching ears.  They will long to hear what they want to hear, finding teachers who will suit their own desires.  They will turn from the truth, wandering away to myths. 

     Contrast this picture of people cobbling together a false “gospel” to suit themselves from bits and pieces of Bible verses, leading to myths and misinformation – contrast that with Jeremiah’s powerful image of a new covenant and of the Word of God being written upon human lives, so that the imprint of the Word would change the entirety of each person.   There’s a huge difference here.  And, poor Timothy, how was he to preach and teach so that people would understand the difference, so that they would be able to learn the Word of God by heart?

     We find an important clue in the first verse of the 4th chapter of the letter.  There Paul writes, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus… I solemnly urge you:  proclaim the message.”  This is the only way we can learn by heart.  We must be in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus.  This learning is accomplished through relationship.  We can’t learn this simply by picking apart the words of Scripture, or by memorizing selected verses, or by feeling our way into an emotional religious experience.  Learning by heart only happens when we are in the presence of God and Jesus Christ.  God must write it on our hearts.  And what is written there is Christ Jesus.

     Now we are really getting down to it.  Now we see that we are light years from parrots and horses and mules.  Now we see that we are not learning by our own efforts of mind or intellect.  We are not chasing our own desires or wandering away to myths.  That cannot happen when we are in the presence of God and Christ Jesus.  That cannot happen when what is written on our hearts is the very person of Christ himself.  That cannot happen when we truly recognize in Jesus Christ the Word of God incarnate.

     You see, what Paul is urging Timothy to do is to point to Jesus Christ as the Word of God, the perfect and complete revelation of God – the nature of God, the purpose of God, the will of God.  We learn God by heart when we know Jesus, when we live in his presence, and when we allow him to entirely transform our lives.  It is this kind of knowing, Paul says, that will equip us for every good work.  Because when we learn by heart, that relationship will change not just our understanding, but our will and desire to please God in the way that we live our lives.  This is the only way to really know the Word of God, when we know it in the flesh, in the man who is our Savior, Jesus.

     Parrots cannot learn in this way.  Horses and mules cannot learn in this way.  But we are not meant to learn like parrots or horses or mules.  We are called to learn by heart the person of Jesus Christ, and so to learn God.  In that way, God will write his Word on our hearts, on our entire lives, and we will know the Gospel because we know Jesus.