Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 4, 2019
Psalm 49:1-12 Commentary
At times there is a very fine line separating the poems we call Psalms from the biblical literature we call Wisdom such as in the Book of Proverbs. Psalm 49 is a classic example of a definite blurring of that fine line. In fact, Psalm 49 sounds sufficiently like any number of passages in Proverbs that it basically counts as Wisdom Literature in its own right.
What’s more, Psalm 49 sounds one of the definitive themes in Proverbs: namely, the deceptive and hollow nature of wealth and the folly of those who make pursing wealth—and then touting their wealth once they get it—the be-all and end-all of their lives. Although Psalm 49 lacks the father-to-son conversation you so often encounter in Proverbs, these verses can easily be read as the advice of an older person to a younger person.
And the advice is pretty straightforward and can be summed up in that well-worn old bromide, “You can’t take it with you!” There is little sense in fretting those who have more money than you. They are finally very often hollow at their spiritual core. They might live in grand gilded mansions now but at the end of the cosmic day their only permanent home will be a tomb. And those gilded mansions? Someone else will take them over.
This is perhaps the bottom line of Psalm 49: you cannot use your money to buy your way out of death. You cannot parlay with God to secure an everlasting lease on your earthly life. Death is the great equalizer. The great leveler. In the face of death there are no higher or lower classes, no distinction among socio-economic groups. As Proverbs also says—and as that other gem of Wisdom Literature in the Bible, the Book of Ecclesiastes, observes with harsh clarity—wise and foolish, strong and weak, rich and poor, intelligent and ignorant: they all die and they all die in pretty much the same way and then, poof, that’s it. End of story. In fact, verse 12 seems to say that you may as well be a horse or a pig or a cow because you will die just like they die. It’s the only way off the planet. Birth, it is said, leads to a terminal condition called life.
However, in these first 12 verses, there is a scattering of another thought: can a human life in any way be redeemed, purchased, saved? True enough, all the money in the world cannot do it. That much is crystal clear. But can something—can Someone—else accomplish this? The first half of this psalm raises the specter of this possibility but does not answer the question, which is why it is so odd that the Lectionary stops this reading at verse 12 because before this poem concludes, we get an indication that in fact the righteous will be redeemed. “But God surely will redeem me from the realm of the dead, he will take me to himself” the psalmist writes in verse 15. And THAT salvation is what will separate out the fate of the righteous from the fate of foolish, wicked rich people who not only appear to die like an animal but just possibly really do finally and fully die that way with no prospect of any future hope to be seen.
In the Lectionary this is paired with Jesus’ parable about the foolish rich man in Luke 12. And, of course, as we point out in the sermon commentary on that passage here on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website, Luke is also the gospel where Jesus famously asks what price a person could pay to buy back his or her own soul if by gaining all the wealth of this world he or she along the way lost his or her soul. It’s a rhetorical question on Jesus’ part. The answer is “You cannot buy your soul back once you forfeit it for money.” You cannot buy it back with your money and in the process of acquiring your wealth you also will have abandoned access to any resource that could do the trick of redeeming back your own soul.
Not a pretty picture. Not a pleasant prospect. But if there is one thing the wealthy are good at in this life it is distracting themselves from uncomfortable truths. It is surely not easy to live without ever facing a few ultimate questions, without ever entertaining—however fleetingly—thoughts as to whether there is anything to come after your heart strokes its last beat. It is not easy to live that way but if history has taught us anything, it is that it is possible to live that way. The unexamined life may not be worth living, as the old adage has it, but it may at least feel fun in the meantime.
Of course, many of us know wealthy people who are able to see the limits of their wealth, who are dedicated disciples of Jesus and who do their best to follow him. So let’s not in our preaching on something like Psalm 49 make this some black-or-white scenario that the rich automatically perish unto perdition and the comparatively poor automatically get saved. There are plenty of poor people who have no more taken the time to examine the foundations of their lives than some wealthy folks.
If Psalm 49 represents part of the Bible’s wisdom tradition, then we need to remember a key lesson of the Book of Proverbs: it takes wisdom to apply wisdom. The reason some of the proverbs in Proverbs contradict each other is because a hallmark of being wise is to know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to life. Sometimes you have to rebuke a fool harshly so as to shake him out of his folly but other times you need to walk away quietly from a fool because no matter what you say, you will make matters worse. So which is it? Well, depends. Your approach to a fool depends on discerning a small welter of other things.
But as a general observation on life—and wisdom is all about making such penetrating observations—it can be said with some certainty that not a few rich people are so busy pursuing and then flaunting their money that they never notice the rapid approach of their own tomb. And if they don’t wake up sooner or later to the deeper truths of the universe, the day will come when it’s too late, when you know you can’t take it with you, and when you know you long ago foreclosed on the few prospects you might ever have had to take a different spiritual path in life.
It reminds me of what was reported to be the final dying words of singer Frank Sinatra: “I’m losing.” Perhaps so but then again, the man who made himself famous singing his signature song “I did it my way” should never have thought that on his own he could ever ultimately “win” to begin with.
This rather lyric (albeit not per se Christian) passage from James W. Jones in his book In the Middle of This Road We Call Our Life represents what we might all hope could happen to those willing to examine their own lives but that too often may not happen, especially to those too busy being distracted by their wealth to bother with such ponderings:
“Growing up, children may learn to speak of God, envisioning God within the limits of their cognitive frame perhaps as a giant man (or woman) who lives above the clouds in a great white palace. Children talk to their God as they do to their teddy bears, consulting ‘him’ about the weighty matters of childhood. But the time comes when children trudge off to school and leave behind the enchanted Eden of their private world. There they learn that beyond the clouds are only limitless curves of space bending back on themselves: no great white palace, no friendly giant God, only the infinite, still emptiness. Gradually the child, now become a young man or woman, may cease to speak of God at all.
But perhaps one day, when staring into the face of his or her own newborn child, or when engulfed by the fierce beauty of the raging ocean or the soaring stillness of the mountains, or when confronted by the grave into which parents or friends have tumbled, or wrestling with recalcitrant fears and anxieties that leap unbidden from the caverns of the mind, the young man or woman, now become an adult, discovers that he or she has (in William James’s words) ‘prematurely closed his accounts with reality’ and that there is more to reality than can be dreamt of in any one philosophy. And the grown child may again speak of God, not as a giant in a palace beyond the clouds or a great policeman in the sky but as a way of connecting with the sacred mystery that surrounds us.”
~~ James W. Jones, In the Middle of This Road We Call Our Life, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995, p. 22.
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