June 10, 2012 Psalm 25: Teach Me Your Ways
1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20 Psalm 25 2 Cor. 4:13-5:1 Mark 3:2-35
As you sow, so shall you reap.
Beware the yeast of the Pharisees.
Consider the lilies.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Every valley shall be exalted and every hill laid low.
Give and gifts will be given to you, good measure, packed together, shaken down and overflowing.
Happy are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is yours.
Into your hands, I commend my spirit.
Justice and peace shall kiss.
Know that I am with you.
Love thy neighbor as thyself.
Many that are first, shall be last.
Now is the kingdom.
Only in God is my soul at rest.
Peace I leave with you, peace that the world cannot give.
Quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord.
Rest in the Lord and wait patiently.
Seek ye first the kingdom of God.
Take no thought for tomorrow.
Under his wings you find refuge.
Victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ.
You alone are Lord.
Zeal for your house will consume me.
We are in the midst of graduation season, with ceremonies filled with speakers trying to pass on words of wisdom to help the graduates live their lives from this way forward. Often speakers will use catch phrases or pithy sayings or quotes. What you have above is a rough form of an acrostic of Scripture passages, words worth passing on to graduates. The older I get, the more steeped in Scripture, the more I find these words, written thousands of years before I was born, to be a source of help and inspiration. Recently, as I listened to accounts of more scandals in the Vatican, in the Catholic Church, I remembered Jesus’ words, “Do everything they (the Pharisees) tell you, but do not act like they do.” In other words, just because religious leaders do not live up to their teachings, it doesn’t mean the teachings are worg. Timely words, all these years later. If there was a perfect church out there, I guess I would consider joining, but I’ve yet to find that perfect church so I stick with the imperfect church that we have, following Jesus’ words and actions.
Our psalm for today is an acrostic lament. Acrostic poems in Hebrew literature take a variety of forms. The most common form is to begin each line with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Some forms might have couplets or three verses each beginning with the same letter of the alphabet then progressing through the alphabet. Psalm 119 is a masterpiece of acrostic poetry as there are 22 stanzas, within each stanza every line begins with the same letter of the alphabet.
In choosing an acrostic format, the writer is limited in some aspects, as with other forms of poetry. While the psalm is a lament with a focus on repentance and forgiveness, the verses do not fit tightly together with a unifying theme. In many ways it is like a collection of wisdom sayings joined loosely together through the acrostic format and under a general theme of repentance and trust in God.
Another aspect of some acrostic psalms is the addition of an extra verse at the end, beginning with the letter pe, as we see in this psalm. This way the psalm begins with aleph, in the middle at the 11th. verse is lamed and ends with pe, creating aleph, another literary device, found in Psalm 34 as well. However Psalm 25 is not a perfect representation of this form of poetry. One letter waw, is missing. Perhaps it was corrupted in translation over the centuries, still it is close enough to warrant the name acrostic. (if you noted in my “acrostic” I took liberty to leave out X – no words beginning with x in Scripture, following example of this psalm.)
It’s a literary device lost in translation for we have nothing comparable. If I were to teach a class on Hebrew poetry, I would assign students to write an acrostic using our alphabet, as I attempted. Acrostics were often used as a teaching device. Since the written word was not common at that time, Hebrews relied on memorization of verses. This is a mnemonic/memory device making it easier for students to remember. Often it may be used to connect a variety of wisdom phrases. While the overall tone of our psalm is a lament, you can see aspects of wisdom material in the passages. The reason for the lament is not evident. The psalm is more of a general one to be used by anyone in a time of distress seeking God’s help. It can be divided into three parts: verses 1-7 speak of the writer’s personal relationship with God; verses 8-15 deals with God’s relationship with people; then in verses 16-21 it reverts back to the individual relationship and his petition. Verse 22 is inserted to connect the psalm to Israel.
At the heart of the psalm to me is verse 4 – teach me your ways, Lord. Who is wise? He who would be led by God, who has the humility to be teachable, to admit he may not always know everything. Such are the wise. Unfortunately sometimes before we can know the right path, we first have to see the wrong path. Our readings for today give us ample examples of wrong paths, of those who think they are wise, but are not.
In our reading for 2 Samuel, Israel is at a critical juncture. They have been led by judges, appointed by God, but now they want a king. They go to Samuel and ask him to appoint a king to rule over him. Samuel is affronted by their request, perhaps because he is worried about his sons continuing after him, or perhaps out of a genuine concern that they are being disrespectful of God. Samuel is not blameless in this. Samuel has led well but his sons have not, they have taken bribes and were more concerned about their own personal gain than justice. The people did not want to be ruled by them, with good reason. We have already seen in 1 Samuel another example of children not following their father’s example. Eli’s sons were corrupt; hence Samuel was appointed judge over the people.
Samuel goes to God and complains about the people’s request. God tells Samuel to give them what they want, but to let them know what they are in for if they have a king. Neither Samuel nor the people show themselves to be wise. The position of judge was not an inherited one; judges were chosen by God to lead. Samuel gave positions of power to his sons who proved unworthy of his trust. The fact of being born to a judge did not mean they would be worthy to lead. Samuel could have learned from the situation with Eli and removed his sons from power, and looked for individuals more worthy to lead, but he didn’t. The people, for their part, instead of asking for a king whose sons would inherit, could have simply asked God for other judges, but they didn’t. Instead they looked around at other nations and thought they wanted what these other nations had, a king, instead of appreciating what they did have. The grass is always greener . . . Little did they realize what they were asking for.
In our gospel from Mark, we see more lack of wisdom. Jesus’ own family is unable to recognize who he is or accept him. He is drawing attention to himself and causing embarrassment to them. They try to get him back into the fold, calling him crazy, but Jesus, unlike Samuel, doesn’t give into his family, following God’s will first and foremost. As Jesus, the great Teacher tells us today, “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
The scribes, religious leaders, said Jesus was possessed. They who were steeped in Scripture study, were unable to accept Jesus—all their learning was a liability, keeping them from knowing God. As one commentator states, “The fact is, when we become ‘at home’ in our religious assumptions, when we become convinced we know who God is and what God is about in this world, we are in danger of being incapable of fresh perception of God’s new directions in our midst. Sick religion is worse than no religion at all.” (Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, After Pentecost 1, p. 52)
True wisdom is open to how God might be working now in our lives, not in the past. Knowledge of how God has worked in the past may be helpful but can also get in the way, as it did for the scribes who were incapable of believing anything new, accepting Jesus.
True wisdom recognizes that the things of this world are but transitory, that even though this earthly tent may be destroyed we have a heavenly dwelling that can never be destroyed. True wisdom is not discouraged even as our body may seem to be wasting away with age, as Paul tells us in Corinthians.
We learn from the past but we live in the present. True knowledge is always seeking out God’s ways, seeking to follow his path even when it takes you down a road you did not expect, recognizing that “all the paths of the Lord are faithful love.” And so it is good to wait for the Lord, as our psalm instructs, to humbly ask God to be our teacher, leading us in right paths until He leads us home to him.
Copyright June 2012, Robertson