“The covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” God says, “is this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God. They will be my people.”
It’s a metaphor, of course, this writing on their hearts business. But it got me to thinking about writing on body parts, which naturally, led me to thinking about tattoos.
I notice tattoos more now than I used to, even a few years ago. They’ve probably always been there. I know my grandfather and my uncle, both of whom served in the army, had tattoos on their forearms. I knew other men who had been in military service had tattoos. When I was a kid I thought tattoos were a military requirement. It was one of the main reasons I didn’t enlist.
Of course, it’s not just a military thing. Never has been. When he was in high school, my brother got a tattoo of Pepe Le Pew – you remember Pepe Le Pew, the skunk from Looney Tunes who was always looking for love. My brother got that tattoo just above his ankle. For some reason, at the time I thought it was an aberration. He wasn’t in the military. But it wasn’t.
My ex brother-in-law had a giant tattoo of a naked lady all up and down his forearm. When they got married, he had it re-tattooed into a big Darth Vader tattoo, which looked to me more like a just a big black bruise than Darth Vader. But it was cheaper than getting the big naked lady tattoo removed. He wasn’t in the military either.
But in recent years, I’ve been noticing, pretty much every time I go to the beach (not nearly as often as I’d like to be at the beach) that tattoos are everywhere. Sometimes they’re pictures. But as often as not, they are tattoos that say something, and I catch myself staring at them, probably more than what’s considered polite, trying to make out what they say.
Sometimes, they’re names of people. Boyfriends or girlfriends. I once saw one on somebody’s back. It was, apparently, the names of a whole succession of girlfriends. Each one crossed out, and the next one written in below. Sometimes the names are prefaced by “In Memory” – a loved one departed now written into skin as a life-long reminder. One of our friends got a tattoo like that on her upper arm: “Loren.”
Sometimes they’re inscriptions like “Love” or “Lucky” or “Biker” or “Death Wish” or “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.
The thing about tattoos, of course, is that they’re permanent. When you get one, it becomes an identifying trait. The police can track you by it. If necessary, your family can identify you at the coroner’s office by it. Nazis, notoriously, used tattoos to keep track of people in their concentration camps. All the more odious, because tattoos were forbidden by the Jewish Scriptures. In Leviticus 19: 28 it says, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.”
But here in Jeremiah, apparently, God is making an exception to the rule. God will write the new covenant on their hearts. In other words, God will mark the people of Israel in a way that will make them both identifiable as belonging to God, and in a way that, unlike paper and ink, or even chisel and stone, is permanent.
Identifiable and permanent. That’s what Jeremiah’s God says. “You will belong to me, permanently, and everyone will be able to tell.”
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why the Israelites are prohibited from making their own tattoos. Maybe that would be like the guy who kept crossing out the name of the previous girlfriend and writing someone else’s name instead. Maybe that’s like blotting over your naked lady tattoo with Darth Vader.
Like I said at the beginning, writing on people’s hearts is a metaphor. Surgeons don’t find actual inscriptions on people’s hearts during open-heart surgery. But if your heart is the metaphorical core, the symbolic essence of who you are, the assertion is that people who belong to God are identifiable by the fact of their essential character. And the essential character of who you are tends to be permanent.
People can change, of course. But for the most-part, people tend not to, even if they’d sometimes like to fool themselves and others into thinking they have.
So the question comes down to, what does your tattoo say? What is your essential character written on your heart?
I’m asking because, if Jeremiah is right about this, you have probably noticed about yourself, at one time or another, that you have a permanent longing to be a better, kinder, more authentic and truthful person. When you’re at your best, you know that what you see more closely matches what you know your authentic self to be. When you help someone through a hard moment, or a few hard years, you realize that even though it takes a toll, it’s who you are and you feel better for having done it. When you make a dent in the universe that will leave the world a slightly better place than when you found it, you can probably feel that you are being true to who you were meant to be. When you are able to offer a small measure of grace or forgiveness or hope to someone, or you feel the tears and smiles of children pull you in an unexpected direction, you might feel it.
Only you can know, of course, what’s written there. But Jeremiah’s promise to the people of Israel is a reminder that your days and mine will be better when we stay in tune with that essential character. Perhaps there have been times when you’ve tried to cross it out or blot it over. Perhaps there have been days, weeks, or even years that you’ve buried it, ignored it, covered it over like a precious painting in a dusty and forgotten attic. If so, you’re not alone. That’s what the people of Israel had done, too, when Jeremiah first spoke these words.
They had thought that who they were had been written into some old scrolls on parchment somewhere. They had gone off the rails. Their lives had become moral cesspools. Their nation had become a train wreck and a laughing stock. Their leaders had become corrupt, self-serving liars and the world as they knew it seemed to be falling apart all around them.
That’s when Jeremiah said this thing about where a people’s essence, where your and my character is really found. It’s tattooed there where you can’t ever really cross it out or blot it out. It’s tattooed there where it permanently signals who you really are, even in those times you’re pretending to be someone else.
So, then, Jeremiah wants to know – wants you to go up to the attic of your life and pull that old dusty tarp off and read it – what does your tattoo say?