Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 7, 2021
Psalm 146 Commentary
The Lectionary likes Psalm 146 a lot and so it comes up with some frequency, including only 2 short months ago the first Sunday in September. The last couple of times that I wrote a commentary on Psalm 146 were pretty similar but this week I will take it in a different direction. If you want to see a different version of my comments on Psalm 146, click here.
Psalm 146 praises God for lots of reasons but among the more prominent are the ways God is described as caring for strangers, for orphans, for widows, for the oppressed, for the hungry. God is also said to be the one who sets prisoners free. But if you know the Old Testament, then you know that what here is being attributed to the work of God was also the vocation of all Israel. Over and over again in places like Leviticus God commands Israel to pay special attention to that grouping of people usually known as “the anawim.” This is “the poor” generally speaking but the anawim usually more specifically referred to that triplet of widows, orphans, and strangers/immigrants.
This Sunday and last week the Old Testament lections came from the Book of Ruth. Ruth came pretty close to being the anawim incarnate: she was a stranger or immigrant from Moab. She was a widow. And for all practical purposes she was an orphan. Ruth was vulnerable times three. Anawim cubed. If someone did not go the extra mile – as the Law of God demanded – Ruth was likely to come to a very bad and sad end. Of course just that happens through the redemptive figure of Boaz. By observing the gleaner laws he saved Naomi’s and Ruth’s lives. And of course in the long run he saved Ruth in more ways than just resolving her being hungry and in danger of starvation.
But Psalm 146 attributes all such work to God alone. God is the one who feeds the hungry, frees the prisoner, cares for the widow and the orphan and the immigrant stranger. Alas and as we all know, however, the happy ending we find at the end of the Book of Ruth was hardly the story of every woebegone person in Israel. Many of the poor were abused. Laws governing a generous treatment of immigrants were ignored. People who found themselves in debtors prison did not get released every 50 years as the rules governing the Jubilee Year stipulated. In fact, we have no evidence in history that Israel ever actually observed the Jubilee in which foreclosed upon and forfeited property was to be returned to the heirs of the original owner. God clearly did not want anyone in Israel to be in poverty in perpetuity but just this happened anyway.
So it would be possible to read Psalm 146’s sunny proclamations about God’s amazing care for the vulnerable of society and turn it into a theodicy-like question. Why don’t you always live up to this, O God? Why do bad things happen to poor people? Your Word claims that you do all of this marvelous work but the eyes in our heads show us something quite different when we look around us. So what gives, O God?
Yes, we could do this with Psalm 146 and with similar psalms like Psalm 113 where God is said to always give children to those struggling with infertility and he always seats paupers with the princes of life. But it’s not true. So let’s blame God.
But not so fast. We just noted that what God is said to accomplish for the anawim was already written in God’s Law for the people of Israel to do. And although we don’t want to discount God’s ability to get things done in sovereign ways and through miracles, we also do not want to discount the fact that one of God’s most ordinary ways of operating is through people. Specifically, through God’s own people who have been equipped with both the knowledge of how to behave and the abilities do follow through on that.
Rather than turn the mistreatment of the poor and the oppressed into God’s problem, maybe we need a look in the mirror to ask what exactly we have been doing about it. By the time prophets like Amos and Micah and the like got sent into Israel to decry Israel’s many covenant failures, they did not assault God for not doing more. The prophets assaulted the leaders and the people generally. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good” Micah famously wrote. And so having been shown what is right—love justice and mercy, take care of the poor, walk humbly with God—the only question that remains from our side of things is why we have not listened and then done accordingly.
In fact, there may be a way of reading Psalm 146 that turns this exultation of God into an indictment of us. Maybe in addition to praising God for desiring to do the right things for this world’s vulnerable people—and praising God for actually doing so—perhaps this psalm was also a way to heap burning coals of shame onto the reader’s head in case we cannot see ourselves cooperating with God in the carrying out of all these merciful acts.
More often than we realize, Scripture contains a lot of literature that could be termed “subversive” in nature. We cannot praise God for God’s tender care of the vulnerable if in fact our lives evince no such care. God has shown us what is good and Psalm 146 is part of that showing. Are we in this picture ourselves or do we think God alone has to do all this?
[For a sermon commentary on this week’s Alternate Psalm, Psalm 127, click here.]
Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff has written extensively over the years on the connection of justice and authentic worship. Here is a sample of his thinking from an article originally published in Reformed Worship magazine:
The self that enters the assembly for worship carries her daily life along with her into the assemblies—does not leave it behind but carries it along—so as now to present that life to God. In daily life she lives, as it were, with God behind her back; now she turns around and, facing God, presents to God her daily life. She thanks God for what she has found good in her life and that of others, she laments to God for what she has found painful in her life and that of others, she confesses to God what she and others have done wrong, she praises God for God’s incomparable majesty.
The person who perpetrates injustice and is unrepentant thereof—how can he possibly present that to God? All such a person can do is try to compensate by spending an hour or so doing things that God might really like. But worship is not for compensating. It is not for compensating for the injustice that one perpetrates outside the assemblies, nor is it for compensating for the injustice one perpetrates inside the assemblies. Worship is for presenting one’s life to God—one’s life outside the assemblies and one’s life inside the assemblies.
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