Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 31, 2016
Psalm 49:1-12 Commentary
The opportunity to preach on Psalm 49 comes at a particularly appropriate time in American history. The whole issue of income inequality has troubled our society for quite a while now, but it has become a hot button topic in the campaign for President. One of the candidates is a non-political figure who claimed very loudly that his riches and his business experience and his intelligence made him the person to solve America’s problems, including income inequality. On the other side was a career politician of a socialist stripe who argued for a very different solution to income inequality. Psalm 49 speaks to the issue of riches and poverty, not by giving a capitalist or a socialist solution, but by saying that riches don’t really matter in the end. “But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish.”
Now, that conclusion doesn’t excuse income inequality. It would be wrong to use Psalm 49 as an opiate to calm the poor into accepting their lot in life. In many other places, God calls God’s people to treat the poor with mercy and justice, in both our individual lives and in our national priorities. The fact that death comes to both rich and poor is not an excuse to abuse, neglect, or ignore the poor. It is a reminder that life is not always it seems. In real life it seems that the rich always win and the poor always lose, but Psalm 49 shows us another reality.
It is not a reality we would see if someone didn’t show us; it’s not obvious common sense. So the author of Psalm 49 begins with a prophet-like shout to wake us up. “Hear this, all you people; listen, all who live in this world….” Notice that the Psalmist addresses the whole world, not just Israel. He is addressing a fundamental human concern, not a concern unique to the redeemed. Indeed, says one commentator, “This Psalm is one of those places where the Bible forsakes, as it were, the greater heights of divine truth in order to concentrate man’s attention on the lowest step of its ascent. The fear of the Lord, the Psalmist tells us elsewhere, is the very beginning of wisdom, and Psalm 49 is a plain, straightforward summons to a godly fear.”
Fear is at the heart of the Psalm. “Why should I fear when evil days come, when wicked deceivers surround me—those who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches?” Psalm 49 identifies two audiences: the poor who are afraid and don’t need to be, and the rich who are not afraid and should be. We should ask our congregation with whom they identify. The Psalm identifies with the poor, comforting them with the assurance that things aren’t as they seem to be.
The Psalmist uses a riddle to communicate that alternate reality. The prophetic shout of verse 1 quickly becomes the soft measured voice of a wise teacher, maybe even a teacher so skilled in her craft that she uses music to get the message across (“with a harp I will expound my riddle”). I will sing you a riddle that will calm your fear of the almighty rich who oppress you.
Those last words are important. Psalm 49 is not a condemnation of the rich as a class. God counts some rich folks as among his most beloved children; think of Abraham and Job. By his grace, God squeezes some rich folks through the eye of a needle. Psalm 49 is talking about the rich who “trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches,” and who are “wicked deceivers.”
In “evil days,” when hard times come, it is easy for the “have’s” to oppress the “have not’s” by using their wealth to make the poor poorer. How? In deceptive ways that most of us don’t see: buying up all the foreclosed property to build an empire of rental properties that are now rented to the poor; loaning to the poor at rates guaranteed to keep them poor; cutting wages and benefits to “save the company” which sometimes means “to keep the profits high enough to make me richer.” Aren’t these simply wise business practices? Or are they wicked deceptions? When do the rich become “wicked deceivers?” It’s not for me to judge.
And, in fact, the Psalmist doesn’t judge any particular actions of the rich, only the attitudes of trusting and boasting. Psalm 49 aims not to condemn the rich, but to comfort the poor with the knowledge that the rich are just like them in one fundamental way. We all die. No amount of money can fend off the great Enemy forever. In real life it seems that income inequality makes all the difference, but in REAL life it turns that income doesn’t matter at all. In a world that sees wealth and poverty as measures of worth and dignity, says Brueggemann, Psalm 49 reminds us that wealth is “not only irrelevant to worth and meaning, but misleading and false. The well-being and power the rich imagine they have is in fact of no consequence.”
In verses 7-9, the Psalmist borrows an idiom from Israel’s legal system to make his point. Someone accused of a serious crime and sentenced to death could pay a large sum of money to have his life spared. That money was a “ransom of life.” The Psalmist uses that term to say that no amount of money could buy a wealthy person eternal life. As an “immortality strategy,” a ransom was a bust, because “the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough—that he should live forever and not see decay.”
The wealthy who deceive others in their quest for wealth also deceive themselves about the purchasing power of their wealth. Seeking some sort of immortality by naming land and buildings after themselves, they will be surprised when they will end up like everyone else, six feet under that land. Everyone should see that, but the pomp and power that comes with wealth makes most people forget that. So, the Psalmist pens this instructive poem that ends both of its major sections (verses 12 and 20) with his riddle. “But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish.”
“Death is the great negation. The very wealth thought to be a ransom is lost in death. The pomp and honor that wealth bought is lost in death. Death is the great equalizer.” (Mays) The money heaped up over the years is left to others. The fine homes built to last for years are exchanged for tombs that last “for endless generations.” The lands bearing their names become anonymous holes in the ground, unless their names are chiseled into headstones. Wealth comes to nothing in the end.
So ends the reading from the lectionary for today. Of course, anyone can see that the writers of the lectionary have performed a lection-ectomy. That’s too bad because the Psalmist goes on to not only reiterate his main point, but to also make a central Gospel point. Not content with reminding us of the general truth about the end of both rich and poor, the Psalmist goes on to tell us a special truth we could never guess without a word from God. What no amount of human wealth could ever do, God will do, and has done.
Verse 15 opens with that shortest summary of the Gospel, “But God.” Humans could never do this, but God has done it. The Hebrew has a little word there that means “surely.” It is a sure thing. As surely as all humans die, regardless of their wealth or poverty, so surely God can “redeem our lives from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.”
This is a surprising word in the Old Testament. For centuries God’s people knew about deliverance from all kinds of trouble, but not about permanent deliverance from death. Here we have at least a hint of that glorious truth about the resurrection and the life that would be revealed with clarity and power by Jesus in passages like John 11:25,26. We cannot pay a ransom for our lives, but God paid a ransom for us by sending his Son. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus, who gave his life as a ransom for all men….” (I Tim. 2:5,6)
Death may take all humans from this life, but for people who trust the Risen Christ, death is not the end. God in Christ will “take me to himself (verse 15).” The word “take” there is the very verb used in Genesis 5:24 and II Kings 2:9-11 to describe the end of the lives of Enoch and Elijah.
If we continue in our reading of this Psalm beyond the section chosen by the RCL, we can preach not only sobering truths about the final destiny of both rich and poor, but also saving truths about the final destiny of all who give their lives and love to the one who gave his life as a ransom for many. Death is the great negation. Jesus is the great affirmation. Death levels the playing field. Jesus raises us up to life everlasting. That truth not only comforts us in the face of life’s great inequities, but also challenges us to help both rich and poor find equality in Christ.
The feature article in the late February, 2016 issue of Time magazine was all about Alzheimer’s Disease, but it spilled a good deal of ink on the related subject of longevity and what people do to live longer. There are pills and exercise and diet and meditation and strange new plans to join brains to computers to prolong memory even after the body is dead. In spite of all those efforts, all have to agree that death will come to us all.
One sub-article talked about the ways people cope with that fact. Some engage in what a researcher called “the voluntary affirmation of the obligatory.” “A lot of our fear of death is about losing the things we’ve built up…. But [when] elderly people let go of their attachment to these things… they let go of some of their fear.” In other words, instead of doing what the wealthy do in Psalm 49, folks can cope with their fear of death by letting go of their wealth.
Other people cope with death by seeing themselves as part of something that will outlive them, such as family or a company or a charity or their country or their church. And still others just become “bitterly disenfranchised,” regretting how they have lived their lives and fantasizing about being Elvis or Lady Gaga.
Time had nothing better to offer than these possibilities, ending with this bittersweet thought. “Of course death, even for the most transcendent among us, will never be a thing to be anticipated with joy. In some ways, it is life’s great punch line—an annihilation of the self at the point where that self has gotten wiser and better than it’s ever been before.”
The Psalmist didn’t see it that way, even though he lived hundreds of years before Paul wrote this to the Philippians. “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far….” (Phil. 1:23)
If you need a great story about a rich man who foolishly put his trust in his wealth, you can’t do better than the parable Jesus told in the Lectionary reading from the Gospels for today. It’s found in Luke 12:13-21.
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