Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 4, 2021
Psalm 123 Commentary
If the entirety of this short psalm were embedded inside a larger psalm, then at least verse 2 is the kind of verse I would expect the Lectionary to leapfrog over. As I have noted often in these sermon commentaries here on the Center for Excellence in Preaching, the Lectionary likes to skip over words of judgment or invectives against enemies and other unpleasantries. Psalm 123 does not really contain too much of that but verse 2’s slavery images are unsettling in their own way. It’s not an analogy that sits very well with us in the modern world. Nor should it.
It’s a little hard to know just how to parse the duel images of the male slave looking to his master’s hand and the female slave’s looking to the hand of her mistress. Is this an image that indicates the slave in question is waiting for the master/mistress to beat them? Strike them? Or perhaps more positively do they hope to see the master/mistress open their hands to the slave so as to indicate things are OK? Since this double image is followed up by a hope to see some mercy coming from God, it surely looks like the fear would be the opposite of mercy, which would almost have to be punishment of some kind. Is God’s hand going to smite me or bless me?
And that’s unpleasant as images or analogies go. Surely no pastor would get away with using such an image today. Not only is the very institution of slavery one we properly find offensive, the implied fear behind this image seems to accord better with a Marcionite conception of the God of the Old Testament than the God of lovingkindness and mercy we associate with the God Jesus instructed us to call “Our Father.”
So there is that wrinkle in Psalm 123.
Then there is the reason that stands behind the plea for divine mercy: because we are sick and tired of our opponents beating up on us. The proud have contempt for God’s people, this psalm says. The arrogant ridicule us. So now it’s up to God to come through for us, to be nice to us, to lift us up and all of that presumably because that will heap scorn on our opponents by showing them who is who. “Boo-Yah! Look who’s on top of the world now, you snarky snipes and mean-spirited critics!”
But this also seems a tad unsettling. Should it ever be a primary motiving goal in our lives as followers of Jesus to lord our favored status from God over the heads of unbelievers or critics of the faith? I mean, in recent years the so called New Atheists have had a good time making a cottage industry out of pooh-poohing and belittling Christian faith (if not all religious faith generally). Names like Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins will ring lots of bells with anyone who has been paying attention to this sustained effort to make Christianity in particular look like a backwards, troglodyte, and retrograde way to view life and the world generally. Christians, these people say, are as daft as people who believe in the Tooth Fairy, river sprites, or who worship Druid-like the spirits inside maples and oaks. Christianity in the view of these atheists is not just wrong, it’s silly. It’s pathetic that anyone in the 21st century would give such a world and life view even a moment’s consideration, much less a lifetime of fervent devotion.
So let’s just admit that this is the kind of thing that could make one’s blood boil. Let’s admit that in the deep recesses of our hearts we would love nothing more than to see these people get a thorough trouncing and get sent away with their religio-philosophical tails between their legs. But is indulging that desire for vindication (and revenge) really our first, best impulse vis-à-vis these figures? Would not the example of Jesus lead us in a different, a better, a more compassionate direction?
Still, in the cosmic long run, we know that such vindication will come. Think of Philippians 2 and Paul’s words that one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Think of the image from Revelation that when Christ comes again, everyone will see him “even those who pierced him” the text says. Recognizing Jesus as the cosmic Lord of lords and King of kings is not restricted in such passages to believers only. This seems to include everybody.
But I would assume that by then, we will be finished with any desires for vindication in a way designed to shame our opponents and we will be way past having desires for revenge on our critics and cultural naysayers. If anything by that time when Christ comes again, it may be our dearest wish that Jesus will save as many as possible, even those who gave Christians the hardest time here on earth. The mercy Psalm 123 asks God to extend to God’s suffering people may well be a mercy we will hope will descend on all people.
It’s not that Psalm 123 asks for something that is wholly untoward. It’s just that in a Christian reading of this text now, we know we need not ever cower like a slave before our loving God even as we also know that the vindication we often pine for will come but in a way that will itself be gracious and full of mercy.
This may not be a fully apt illustration to accompany Psalm 123 but something about where my thinking led me in pondering this psalm and its apparent calls for vindication over critics and enemies reminded me of Frederick Buechner’s comment in one of his books concerning the character of Barabbas. As we all know, at the end of the trial and interrogation of Jesus, Pontius Pilate gave the bloodthirsty crowd a choice: should he release Jesus or the criminal thug Barabbas? The crowds cried to set the actual criminal free and let the non-criminal get crucified. Buechner noted that this was, of course, a sad commentary on the state of mind of that crowd, many of whom included Jesus’s fellow Jews. Then again, Buechner mused, if Jesus had been given the same choice, he would have elected to set Barabbas free too.
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