Sunday, September 5, 2010


I could count on my hands, maybe even on one hand, the number of times I’ve preached specifically on the Psalm of the liturgy. It’s a shame that we don’t use the Psalms more in preaching because they’re so down-to-earth and full of the very human situations which we all face. Above all, the Psalms are poetry and prayer, poured out to God from human hearts like ours, sometimes full of praise and joy or of suffering and despair, sometimes full of ardent longing and even of bitterness and anger.

Most of the 150 Psalms carry a superscription or title, added some time during the collecting and editing process. For example, Psalm 45, which begins “My heart is astir with gracious words; I speak my poem to a king…”, has the double title: “A Maskil” = an instructive poem, and “A love song”. Today’s Psalm 1, however, is one of 34 titleless Psalms, often called “orphan Psalms”. Psalm 1 wasn’t actually a part of the Psalter, but was added later as an introduction to the whole collection. So, message of Psalm 1 is quite basic and it sets the teaching tone, not only for the whole Psalter, but for today’s three liturgical readings.

Psalm 1’s themes of reward for the righteous and virtuous person, and of punishment for the wicked and the ungodly, connects with Israel’s ancient wisdom teachers, particularly the writers of the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. The psalm seems to date from later in the wisdom movement’s history, when wisdom and God’s law were considered virtually identical, so, perhaps c. 400 B.C.E.

In the simplest terms, the sage-writer of Psalm 1 aims to teach people how to live. Wisdom = hokma (Heb.) meant human wisdom as it is lived and practiced. The “wise” person was one who had “practical ability”, “professional skill”, enabling one to live well, rule well, think well, etc. Such a person was interested in the great questions of life, and how to translate the wisdom of the insights and answers to such questions into everyday, practical, here-and-now living. A wise person or sage was one who came to such knowledge through a relatively long life, through many and varied experiences, and through integrity, wholeness, and holiness gained from the relationship with one’s self, with one’s fellow men/women, and, most of all, with God. Such a person could, indeed, be called righteous: possessing true shalom = peace, because one’s relationships, with self, with other human beings, and with God, were integral, whole, and therefore, sacred.

Like the Beatitudes of Jesus, the first part of Psalm 1 (vv. 1-3) describes the righteous one with the wisdom-writers’ term, “Happy/Blessed”. It’s truly a wise and clever device, isn’t it, because, right away, it holds out to all who hear or read it exactly what all of us really want in life: to be happy. The psalmist then goes on to show, in three ways: 1) negatively; 2) positively; and 3) by means of a metaphor, how such a one can accomplish this.

1) Negatively, he advises us against a threefold, progressive association with undesirables: “don’t walk in the counsel of the wicked”; “don’t stand in the way of sinners”; “don’t sit in the seat of scoffers”. Shun evildoing; don’t take advice from those who act contrary to God’s wishes. Don’t take as role models those who’ve gone off the path of the true and the right. Don’t join the company of the arrogant who scorn and sneer at their fellows and at God.

2) Positively, let one’s delight be in Torah, commonly called “the law of the Lord”. This isn’t, however, to be taken in any written or legal sense. It means, rather, God’s guidance and instruction, God’s Sophia or Wisdom, which is God’s very Self. That is to be one’s “delight”, such that it’s never a burden or a yoke, but the sweet, stable foundation of the whole of one’s life. One’s meditation or prayer is to centered at all times, throughout the entire day, and, indeed, throughout one’s whole life, on God who is All Wisdom and Truth.

3) In a metaphor used frequently throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the psalmist depicts the righteous one as a tree, “planted by streams of water, which yields fruit in its season, and whose leaves do not wither…” It’s a picture of abundance, prosperity, productivity, usefulness, and ability to endure life’s hardships: all made possible by the nourishing streams of God’s outpouring of Godself into one’s life. For an Israelite, trees and water were extremely important sources of food and of relief from the heat. As a tree graciously flourishes and becomes fruit-giving, so the righteous person branches out, reaches out, graciously and generously to others. The image of “streams of water” suggests many things: Torah, God’s law, divine Wisdom, pouring Itself out in the creation of the natural world and humankind; the life-giving Blood of Jesus which the Epistle to the Hebrews refers to as “a better word than the blood of Abel” and as “the new and living way...opened for us”; and, finally, the waters of Baptism where, as the Book of Common Prayer says, we’re “sealed by the Holy Spirit [often symbolized as Sophia/Wisdom]...and marked as Christ’s own for ever”. The celebrant also prays that we be given “an inquiring and discerning heart, [and] the courage to will and to persevere…and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.

In the second half of Psalm 1 (vv. 4-6), the sage contrasts the righteous one, the flourishing tree by the water-stream, utilizing the image of grain chaff which he likens to the ungodly, conniving, wicked person: “The wicked chaff that the wind drives away…”. This recalls the harvesting process which involved cutting the grain with sickles, gathering it into sheaves, then taking it to the threshing floor, an important local site with a hard surface and often situated on higher ground. Various tools, such as metal-toothed sledges drawn by oxen, were used for threshing. As grain was winnowed, or tossed into the air, with a pitchfork, the wind carried off the chaff, leaving the heavier kernels and straw to fall to the ground. Finally, the kernels were shaken in a sieve, made of a wooden hoop with leather thongs, after which the grain was sacked and stored. The psalmist’s message is that the life of those caught up in godlessness and evil, rather than being “happy”, is without true permanence, worth or meaning. They aren’t integral, whole or at peace with themselves, with others, and, most of all, with God. Sadly, by their own choice, such people live in separation from God and from “the congregation of the righteous”.

The Psalm ends, in a literal rendering of the Greek text, with the psalmist’s comment that “the Lord tells/teaches the path of the righteous, whereas the path of the wicked leads to losing oneself.” Another biblical scholar graphically describes it this way: “The path followed by the righteous is broad and safe, because the Lord knows i.e., it is under his protection. In contrast the path of the wicked, like a desert trail, leads nowhere and will soon peter out...perhaps beside a dry water hole marked by the skeletons of those who followed it.

Today’s readings each suggest in their own way the two choices which the wisdom-writer of Psalm 1 presents to us. Moses, in Deuteronomy (30:15-20), expresses it perhaps the most clearly: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and and death, blessings and curses…” Many scholars believe that all of Deuteronomy 29-30 was written well after the conquest of what we know as the Holy Land. During the years after the Exodus, God’s people had, time and again, ignored God’s words. They’d taken up the worship of other gods, and had suffered both the consequence of becoming a relatively powerless people whose land was the crossroads of other mighty empires, and the consequence of their own failures and betrayal of God. So, you have to understand Moses' words in the context Israel’s having experienced a happy/tragic roller coaster ride in the years after entering the promised land -- without Moses, by the way.

Moses is shown giving a final pep-talk to the descendants of those with whom he escaped from Egypt a generation back. They’re on the frontier of the Promised Land, which God has already informed Moses that he will glimpse before he dies, but not enter. Moses himself never saw the Torah as any sort of burden. He assures his people that God’s will, “the law of the Lord”, is "not too hard ..., nor is it too far away". God's Wisdom is, in fact, "in your mouth and in your heart". That’s how intimate and immediate God is to God’s people in leading them on the path of the righteous. The community of Israel already has the Torah on its collective lips and in its heart, presumably as the result of their continual individual and communal reflection on it. The choice for them is quite clear: a simple “if-then”: if you love God by doing God's will, then you’ll have long life and prosperity. If you serve other gods, then you’ll die. God calls all heaven and earth to witness to the choice which God offers again: life or death.

The Letter to Philemon is slightly different in that Paul poses a choice, a rather radical one at that, to Philemon regarding his runaway slave. It appears that Philemon was a dearly beloved friend of Paul’s, and a leader in the Colossian Christian community. Paul refers to “the church in your house”. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had somehow ended up running away from, or at least leaving, his household and serendipitously connected with Paul, most likely in Ephesus, where Paul was in prison, and ended up becoming Paul’s right-hand man, much to Paul’s delight. Paul several times plays on the name of “Onesimus” which means “useful” or “beneficial”.

Paul basically proposes that Philemon accept Onesimus back. In returning Onesimus, Paul wants to be “legally correct”, because that would’ve been the right thing to do, and he makes it very clear both that Onesimus will honor Philemon’s decision, either way, and that he, Paul, will pay any outstanding expenses which Philemon has incurred. Paul says that he’d prefer that Philemon would honor his request willingly, not out of a sense being pressured to do so. Yet, Paul is blatantly unrelenting in laying a real guilt trip on Philemon. Paul plays the "age card": “...I, Paul, do this as an old man…”, then adds the "suffering servant card": “...and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus…” He tells Philemon that Onesimus has been such an invaluable assistant in the ministry that he’s become like a son. Paul shamelessly hints that he’d like to keep Onesimus with him, truth be told! “ he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me...but I preferred to do nothing without your consent…” Though it seems that Paul really wants Philemon to send Onesimus back to him as a gift, he’s willing to let him go, if only Philemon will accept him back unconditionally, no longer as a slave, but as “a beloved brother”. In fact, Paul urges Philemon to “welcome him as you would welcome me”, throwing in the little jab that “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self”. Paul admits his confidence that Philemon “will do even more than I say”.

There’s an indication that this letter wasn’t just to Philemon, privately, but that Paul meant it to be read to the Colossian church community also. It was to prod others, beyond Philemon, to reassess their willingness consciously choose to accept all others as Christ would. Imagine yourself as Philemon, hearing this read during the Sunday announcements! And I wonder if anyone took bets on what Philemon’s choice would be!

Then there’s Luke’s Gospel passage! (14:25-33) The Jesus depicted by Luke here expresses, the most painfully and uncompromisingly of the three readings, the gist of Psalm 1’s message: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even life itself—cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Unfortunately, there’s no way to tone down or euphemize the intensity of the verb usually translated as "hate". 19 out of 21 translations which I checked use that exact word. Parenthetically, the Gospel of Thomas, an ancient source, not included in our Christian canon of Scripture, has virtually the same passage and wording in two places. Matthew, in his Gospel (10:37), gives a softened version: “Any one who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and any one who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Other renderings, such as "detest", "abhor", “abandon”, “disregard”, etc., have been suggested, but the word miseo = to hate in the Greek text is clear. Which poses a dilemma, at least for me, because I can’t imagine Jesus teaching anyone to literally detest another person for any reason, much less a close family member.

The commentaries which I’ve studied either side-step the question or go along with Matthew’s viewpoint. Here’s what I personally feel sure of: that I’m called to do no less than what Matthew’s Jesus commands, i.e., to love no person or thing more than Jesus the Christ. As to what Luke’s Jesus commands, let me suggest two viewpoints for you to “chew on” and pray over for yourselves during the next week:

1) Pastor Lisa Davison, of the Disciples of Christ Church and professor of religious studies at Lynchburg College in Virginia, offers this: “The introduction to the passage might hold a clue to [Jesus’] motivation for such strong language. As Jesus has been making his way to Jerusalem, the crowd following him has increased, as more people are moved by his message and make the spontaneous choice to join the cause. Most, if not all, of them have no idea what they are signing up for when they decide to follow the same path as Jesus. On down the road, when the going gets tough, they will turn away; their impulsive decision was not based on any informed consideration. Jesus does not want such unthinking discipleship, and he also does not want anyone to be uninformed of what will be asked of them. He overstates the level of commitment that is required of his followers (e.g., hating family and life) to make clear that nothing else can come before their loyalty to God and the gospel message. Nothing and no one in their lives can come before God.

2) Roy Hoover and the late Robert Funk of the Jesus Seminar, in their book The Five Gospels (Polebridge Press/Macmillan, 1993) comment thus on Luke 14:26: “...Matthew softens it...But Luke and [The Gospel of] Thomas retain the rigorous form: hatred of family is a condition of discipleship.
The severity of this saying can only be understood in the context of the primacy of filial relationships. Individuals had no real existence apart from their ties to blood relatives, especially parents. If one did not belong to a family, one had no real social existence. Jesus is therefore confronting the social structures that governed his society at their core. For Jesus, family ties faded into insignificance in relation to God’s imperial rule [“God’s reign” - my addition], which he regarded as the fundamental claim on human loyalty.

Commenting on the Gospel of Thomas 55, Hoover and Funk say: “...The saying concerns the place of family ties in relation to the claims made by God’s imperial rule [“God’s reign” - my addition]. Jesus gave absolute priority to the latter. Of course, he did not advocate that his disciples exhibit animosity or hostility towards parents, but that they accord their highest allegiances to the kingdom of God…

I leave you with this thought from the late Leo Buscaglia: “What we call the secret of happiness is no more a secret than our willingness to choose life.

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