Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 29, 2023
Psalm 15 Commentary
In the Gospel sermon commentary for this Year A Sunday we are directed to think of who we are supposed to be as reflected in Jesus’s Beatitudes in Matthew 5. As theologians and biblical commentators have noted for centuries, if we want to know who we are to be like in order to fit inside the Beatitudes, look no farther than Jesus himself. A colleague of mine noted with me recently when I was in the midst of grading a batch of sermons from the Parable of the Good Samaritan that when the early church theologians like Origen and Chrysostom and others read this parable, they all came to the same conclusion: who is the Good Samaritan? Jesus.
So yes, at the end of that parable Jesus tells the lawyer whose question prompted this story to “Go and do likewise.” And yes, that makes that passage easy picking for finger-wagging pulpiteers to scold people into going and doing likewise. But the truth is that short of a person’s becoming Jesus, it would not be possible. Indeed and for now, it is only the living presence of Jesus by the Holy Spirit inside any given person that anyone would have even a remote shot of behaving like the Good Samaritan in Jesus’s tale.
That can and needs to be the same bottom line when we consider Psalm 15 as well. To put it mildly, the psalmist has set the spiritual bar a tad high here! That might be less daunting were it not for the fact that the psalm begins by asking the question as to what kind of person is allowed to have life and fellowship in the presence of God. Alas, the answer to that question based on what follows would seem to be: No one.
Or at least no one I have ever met and certainly not the person whose reflection I see in my bathroom mirror every morning. Even the best of Christians I have ever met could not—were they honest—tick every box every day and all the time from Psalm 15’s checklist of virtues. Indeed, the more holy a person is, the more likely that he or she would be honest enough to acknowledge his or her shortcomings (at least now and then) when it comes to Psalm 15’s described behaviors.
Again, the spiritual meaning of that is plain enough and I will loop back to it below. But first notice how the psalm ends: the person who fits this description will “never be shaken.” How might we understand that line? Well, perhaps in the sense that one would not have to tremble in one’s boots when standing before the Almighty and Holy God of Israel. If you really lived in these ways consistently and on a daily basis, what would prevent you from meeting the gaze of God? What would make you avert your eyes or look down at your shoes or fidget nervously because of what you know God knows about who you really are? So such a person would not be on shaky ground in front of God and in his holy dwelling place.
There may also be a second sense of how to understand how such a person would not be shaken. If you lived the way Psalm 15 describes, you won’t be shaken in the sense of not living with nervous fears tickling the back of your mind of being found out about something. If you never lie, you don’t need to work so hard to keep track of your lies lest you accidentally contradict yourself at some point. Always tell the truth and you won’t worry about being found out for falsehood.
Speak well of other people and you cannot be credibly accused of besmirching someone’s character. Keep your promises even when it hurts and you cannot be accused of being a fair-weather friend. You will not be shaken. Even if someone accuses you falsely, you will know it is false. You are on solid ground at all times. Surely this is an easier way to live than being in constant fear of being found out for this or that past lie, broken promise, misdeed, and so on.
But let’s get back to the main spiritual upshot of Psalm 15: it is one of those lofty pieces of spiritual aspiration that actually serves as an indictment of how most of us live all the time. Is this meant to drive us to despair? If it were the end of the Bible’s story, there would be no choice. Despair would be the outcome.
Of course, however, Psalm 15 is not the end of the story. A psalm like this drives us to God’s Christ, to Jesus, who came full of grace and truth in order to live the Psalm 15 life we cannot do so that Christ’s righteousness in all such matters could become our own righteousness by grace alone. Who can do everything all the time that Psalm 15 lays out for us? Only Jesus. Even King David whose psalm this ostensibly is did not live up to this. Solomon didn’t. No future Son of David did until the ultimate Son of David came. And thankfully he did not come for his own sake but for our sakes so that he could take what he was and give it to us as a gift.
So who can dwell in the sacred tent or live on the holy mountain of God? Only Jesus. Only Jesus and all those he brings with him. Thanks be to God!
It can be exhausting to live a duplicitous life or to keep track of your own lies. A clear example of this came at the courtroom climax of the film A Few Good Men. The hard-bitten Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) is in charge of a Marine platoon in Guantanamo Bay. One day he secretly ordered that a troublesome Marine private named Santiago be given a “Code Red,” which was when fellow soldiers would rough up a given individual to motivate him to straighten up and fly right in the future.
But the Code Red went south and the private died. To cover up the incident, Col. Jessup tells the lie that he had actually arranged to have the private transferred so as to prevent him from being harmed by fellow soldiers who did not like him—Santiago was slated to move out the very morning after he ended up dying.
But Col. Jessup also told the lie that he had given all of his troops strict orders not to touch the private. But when the prosecuting attorney (Tom Cruise) puts 2 & 2 together, he saw a disconnect he could exploit. Col. Jessup prided himself on the fact that his orders were always followed. So if Jessup had ordered the private not to be harmed, why did he also have to order him transferred so as to keep him from being harmed? Both things could not be true, and in this explosive and now-famous scene, the Colonel is trapped in his own words and ends up confessing to the truth: he had ordered the soon-to-become-fatal Code Red (and so had perjured himself earlier and had suborned perjury from his other officers).
That’s the thing about lying—you have to work extra hard to keep track of it all. Those who always tell the truth, on the other hand, live with no such unsettling thoughts. They will never be shaken. (But as noted above, even for believers, even that can come only with Jesus’ help!)
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