Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 6, 2019
Psalm 37:1-9 Commentary
The Book of Psalms—and sometimes individual poems within it—can be pretty good at the proverbial “talking out of both sides of one’s mouth at the same time.” Taken individually, some psalms paint a very pretty picture of how the righteous always prosper and how the wicked always fail miserably. Then again, other psalms admit that the wicked very often do just fine, thank you very much, even as the righteous often have a miserable time of it in this world. Some poems praise God for his nearness and love, other poems lament loudly God’s seeming absence and God’s deafness to our cries. Mostly the Psalms are pretty good at encouraging us to take the long look in such matters. Whatever good may be happening for the wicked now and whatever bad may be experienced by the righteous for now, in the end everything will turn out just fine when the coming of God’s justice is all in all.
In the midst of all that, however, Psalm 37 may stand out as saying a little bit of everything! Although we are focusing on only the first 9 verses in the RCL reading, the psalm goes on a good bit longer. Along the way it says some things that we all know only too well: wicked people often prosper. Crooks get away with their crimes. The nasty people of society are not only not miserable, they are often living it up in opulence and having a great time in life. The righteous are told not to fret this. It’s not right, it’s not just but in the long run it’s still better to be righteous than to be wicked and evil.
Verse 16 goes on to admit that the righteous very often do get the short end of life’s stick. “Better is the little the righteous have than the abundance of the wicked.”
That all sounds fine but then you also get this sentiment in verses 25-26: “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. They are ever giving liberally and lending, and their children become a blessing.” And now we are tempted to say “Whoa, hold up there a sec, Mr. or Ms. Psalmist. Because I have seen the righteous in grave poverty and there are plenty of children from good homes whose lives seem somewhere just south of anything anyone would label ‘blessed.’”
Realism and honesty; optimism and a little wishful thinking: it seems we get a little bit of everything in Psalm 37. Even in just these first 9 verses we get simultaneously a call to not fret the success of the wicked and also promises that God will feather the nests of all good people even as any minute now their goodness is going to shine like the noonday sun for all to see. What are we to make of such poetic see-sawing?
Well, maybe we need to take a step back to ponder what this Psalm’s core intention is. In some ways this resembles some of the wisdom literature you can find in the Book of Proverbs. In particular some of this sounds an awful lot like those addresses in Proverbs from a father to a son. It’s as though the psalmist here knows how beguilingly good the lifestyles of the (wicked) rich and famous can look to younger people. Who doesn’t want to live in the lap of luxury? Who doesn’t want a life free of having to worry all the time about making ends meet or having enough to pay the bills come the end of the month? Who isn’t confused and distressed at times to see how hardworking and honest people often get the short end of the stick even as slackers and cheats not only manage to make more money but never get caught in their shenanigans?
I mean, we have all known people—fellow students in school, fellow employees at some place of work, fellow family members—who do it all wrong but always come out smelling like a rose. How many of us don’t have the nagging sense at times that if we did just ONE thing wrong at work, the boss would come down on us like a ton of bricks even as our fellow workers screw up all the time and have yet to receive so much as a stern glance from the boss.
So why not join them in their nefarious deeds and their slacker patterns of behavior? Why can’t we cash in on life’s gravy train the way so many other folks do? Why live within the tensions of so much inherent unfairness? Just give in to the ways of the world. Go along to get along. Grab for the gusto while you can.
But to these tempting and alluring alternative paths, the psalmist wants to instruct his children—and all of us—to not give in. This is the father in Proverbs urging his son to not give in to the shallow allures of harlots (and the “harlot” of folly personified). Or in a more pop vein, this is Yoda in Star Wars warning young Luke Skywalker not to take “the quick and easy path” as Darth Vader did and end up serving the Dark Side forever. It’s Robert Frost urging the road less traveled by and M. Scott Peck’s later appropriation of Frost’s image for his bestselling book in telling us that the harder path is almost always the better path, that the allures of what’s handy and easy and apparently profitable almost always lead to at best short-term gain but long-term ruin.
So yes, parts of Psalm 37 seem a bit too good to be true and a bit too much at variance with what our own eyes can see when we look around us. But maybe we should read all of this as the earnestness of a loving parent doing anything and everything he/she can to keep a child on the straight and narrow, to take the long look and trust that at the end of the day, our God has got this thing. Things are going to turn out the way we all along knew they should. Be patient, take a deep breath, recognize that the joy that God’s children have is deeper and more lasting than any short-term flash-in-the-pan, live-for-the-moment pleasure or success of devious people.
This is hard to do! But are we willing—as the psalmist was—to do all we can (even if it leads to a rhetorical excess here and there) to celebrate the joy of righteousness and help our younger people to do the same? Do we feel the divine urgency of this ancient poet?
When I made my Profession of Faith during my high school years—this is my denomination’s equivalent of what some call “Confirmation”—we sang a hymn often associated with Professions of Faith, “O Jesus, I Have Promised.” It is a hymn about committing oneself to Jesus, to follow him and to desire him alone. One of the lines in the hymn might resonate with the sentiments of Psalm 37: “O let me feel you near me, the world is ever near. I see the sights that dazzle, the tempting sounds I hear.” It was to head off the allure of just such dazzle and such that the writer of Psalm 37 wanted to convey, to blunt these temptations for his readers, perhaps for especially his younger readers.
Of course, we live in a culture that fosters and celebrates the allure of all those dazzling sights. Not a few observers have noted over the years that in the advertising industry, you can see what could be called “designer envy.” We are made to feel perpetually restless, as though no matter what we currently possess, it’s not good enough. We have to be motivated to get the next new iPhone by being made to feel that the iPhone 9 we were ABSOLUTELY told we had to have two years ago is now almost an embarrassment and so you just gotta line up early at the Apple store for the iPhone 11 the moment it goes on sale.
But it’s not just products: it is whole lifestyles we are tempted to aspire to achieve. What else could be the purpose of a show whose very title betrays what we are supposed to desire: Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Or it reminds me of an early scene in the movie Jerry Maguire when a single mom sitting in the coach section of an airplane overhears a conversation from First Class in which someone – it turns out to be Jerry Maguire – is bragging on and on about his high-flying rich lifestyle and the pyrotechnic relationship he has with his drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend. At one point she sighs as she overhears all this, prompting her little boy in the seat next to her to ask what is wrong. “First Class is what is wrong,” she replies. “It used to be a better meal. Now it’s a better life.”
Never mind that at the end of the day none of these people – be they Kardashians or Maguires or fill-in-the-celebrity-blank people – are moral exemplars or people any righteous person should want to emulate. But they are so dazzling . . .
To this Psalm 37 counsels, “Don’t go there. Don’t aspire to that. Don’t want that.”
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