Reflection: How Do Covenants and Contracts Differ?

by Father Don Thomas

For many years, I had read about and heard about this concept of covenant, and it usually had some basis in sacred scripture. I had never stopped to define the term, and it was only after Vatican Council II that I began to appreciate the beauty and significance of a true covenant. My understanding and appreciation of the concept came from my pastoral involvement in preparing couples for marriage. This is what I noticed. Like thousands of other priests, ministers and deacons, I adhered to the pattern of the church in referring to marriage or matrimony as a sacrament through which a husband and a wife would form a contract, taking each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health until death.

Personally, I was satisfied with that, until one day I read an article in which it was suggested that matrimony is more of a covenant than a contract. The writer pointed out the difference. A contract is an agreement between two individuals or two groups and the agreement is about something material. For example, I'll give you fifty dollars for your old bicycle; or I'll give you a thousand dollars for your old car. A contract is formed, and it is always an agreement over something material.

The covenant is truly different, for it is also an agreement but it is always personal and permanent. Marriage is a wonderful example or illustration of a covenant, because if we put it this way, notice how the agreement is so personal: "Darling, I'd like to make a deal with you; I've been doing a lot of thinking and I would agree to become your husband if you will be my wife and I will never abandon you; and the woman agrees to the same deal by saying something like: Hey, I like that deal, and I would love to take you as my husband and I will be your wife and I will never abandon you either". For all couples, therefore, the covenant is formed through the exchange of marriage vows, and what many seem to be forgetting nowadays is that a vow is a promise made to God. It is serious and not to be taken lightly. The vow is not made to the priest, minister or justice of the peace. They simply witness the exchange of vows that are made to God. Knowing that we cannot fool God, why is that in our day and age, so many are making a mockery of the promises they make to God? These promises or vows are serious and sacred in the eyes of God, and God expects us to keep our promises. This is equally true of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that are pronounced by men and women in religious life as priests, sisters or brothers. Those vows also are made to God, and not to a bishop, provincial or a mother superior who simply witnesses them.

In a very general way, the most frequently quoted example of covenant is the one in which we hear God saying "I will be their God and they will be my people". Another situation I found to be very interesting is described beautifully in the first book of Chronicles, chapter 22, verses 5-19, in which the question of building a temple for the Lord is discussed. God tells King David that he (David) will have nothing to do with the construction because of the sins he has committed and mistakes he has made. God told David that his son, Solomon, was to erect the temple. Here is the example of covenant. God told David that a son would be born to him, named Solomon, and "he shall be a son to me, and I shall be a father to him and I will establish the throne of his kingship over Israel forever". That is a very interesting example of a covenant.

As Christians, on the occasion of our baptism, a covenant is established between ourselves and God. It is as if God is saying to us that He will be our father and we will be his sons or daughters, and He will never abandon us. Our commitment to Him has to be renewed from time to time because of our sinful tendencies, but it is a relationship we have to consider as being precious and necessary if we wish to gain eternal life. For those who read this reflection, may these few ideas in some way be of some help either in their marriage relationships or in their baptismal relationship with God their Father.

The End


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