The Rev. Canon Frederick W. Schmidt, D.Phil.: “The Wisdom of the Psalms”
The great reformer, Martin Luther, was not a Lutheran, but a Roman Catholic. Ordained to the priesthood of the Roman church, he prepared to celebrate mass for the first time. The celebration was postponed, and the reason was a good one. He wanted his father to be present. So the date was set to accommodate his father’s schedule.
Hans had been vehemently opposed to his son’s ordination. But the tensions that had marked their relationship seemed to have passed. With a company of twenty horsemen, Hans Luther came riding in and even made a handsome contribution to the monastery.
The day began with the chiming of the cloister bells and the chanting of the psalm. Luther took his place before the altar and began to recite the introductory portion of the mass. But when he came to the words, “We offer unto thee, the living, the true, the eternal God,” his mood radically changed. Later he would relate, “At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, ‘With what tongue shall I address such Majesty . . . And shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say ‘I want this, I ask for that?’ For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living eternal and the true God.”
The terror of the Holy, the horror of Infinitude struck him like a lighting bolt, and only through a fearful restraint could he hold himself at the altar to the end. Utterly limp, he left the chapel to join his father and the guests, where he hoped to escape his fear. After shuddering at the unapproachableness of the heavenly Father, he now craved a word of assurance from his earthly father.
They sat down together, and Martin, as if he were still a little child, turned and said, “Dear father, why were you so contrary to my becoming a monk? And perhaps you are not quite satisfied even now. The life is so quiet and godly.”
This was too much for old Hans who had been trying his best to repress his anger. He flared up before all the doctors, masters and the guests, and shouted, “You learned scholar, have you never read in the Bible that you should honor your father and your mother? And here you have left me and your dear mother to look after ourselves in our old age.”
Luther had not expected this. Be he knew the answer. All the manuals recalled the gospel injunction to forsake father and mother and they pointed out the greater spiritual benefits that would accompany the commitment he had made. So Luther answered, “But, father, I could do you more good by prayers, than if I had stayed in the world.” And then Martin added what he must have thought was the clinching argument, reminding his father that the call to the priesthood had come from heaven out of a thundercloud.
“God grant,” said old Hans, “it was not an apparition of the Devil.” The day which began with the ringing of the chimes and the singing of psalms ended with the horror of the Holy and doubt that the thunderstorm had really brought the voice of God. (A partial paraphrase from: Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, pp. 40-44.)
It was this experience and others like it that drove Luther in his debate with the Roman Church to caricature the debate between Paul and Judaism as a radical and complete rejection of the Law. And it was Luther’s influence on the subsequent interpretation of Paul that has made it all but impossible for Christians to understand the Old Testament’s preoccupation with commandments and a God who gives them. We read Psalm 1, but we don’t hear it, let alone live it.
A religious genius who breathed new life into the church’s theology, Luther was (like our Episcopal forebears) also very human. The son of toxic parents, he could not hear God’s grace without radically distancing Paul’s interpretation of the gospel from the Law that left him feeling condemned over and over again.
What Luther could not have anticipated was the enormous spiritual peril that arises from having redefined the gospel in this way, particularly when it mixes with a culture like ours. We chafe at boundaries. We speak of rights far more readily than responsibilities. And the concept of discipline, even spiritual discipline is alien to us. A hot house for what another Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, described as “cheap grace,” we have reinvented the life of faith without expectation that grace will lead to transformation.
Against that background it is startling to think about the psalms and, in particular, Psalm 1, which the choir sang today. Separated in our liturgy from the sermon by at least two more biblical readings and a hymn, we rarely reflect together on the psalter. More often than not, we read them for comfort, which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but my suspicion is that we read them with a greater amount of attention to the general “feeling” they create rather anything like a close reading.
But when you do give close attention to the psalms, the first thing that emerges as you read them in order is the Law, or better, as the Hebrew would have it, Torah, instruction. So, here at the beginning of what most of us regard as the most accessible, useful and relevant body of literature in the Hebrew Bible is a celebration of the one concept we can’t quite rap our theology or our lifestyle around. “Happy are they whose delight is in the law of the Lord.” We can sing it, but we don’t quite know what to do with it!
But the ancient editors of the psalms knew exactly what they were doing when they placed this psalm at the beginning. As scholar James Luther Mays observes, Psalm 1 is one of three problem children in the psalter that have rarely been assigned to one of the categories used to label the other psalms. Described as wisdom psalms, together however they have a critical place in the book reiterating the message given by the first. Indeed, given the location of this morning’s psalm at the beginning of the psalter, they are—in all likelihood—a clue to the way in which the psalter as a whole is meant to be read and understood (James Luther Mays, “The Place of the Torah-Psalms in the Psalter”).
Born of both national and personal experience, the poetry of the psalter explores a variety of human emotions, both prayer and praise. Those who wrote the psalms knew the tragedy and disaster that led them to cry out. But by placing a wisdom psalm at the beginning, the editors sought to remind the reader that whatever happens, no matter how unfair life may appear to be, no matter how difficult it may be to detect the hand of God, those who meditate on God’s law are like trees planted by streams of water and the wicked are like chaff that the wind blows away. Threaded through the psalms, then, against the backdrop of the painful candor that admits that the righteous do suffer, is the abiding conviction that obedience matters, nonetheless.
This is, then, the well-spring of a very different spirituality than the one more often cultivated by our culture. In covenant with God, it is not self-discovery or self-enhancement that is emphasized. The passion of the righteous is to know the will of God. Those who are sought out by their creator learn that life is relational and absolute freedom is a phantom. The key to true happiness is an ordering of relationships that acknowledges the central place of God in the fabric of those relationships.
The purpose of prayer, though it includes petition, is not about guaranteeing that certain things happen and that other things are avoided. As a friend of mine who describes himself as a medieval Christian is fond of observing, so the psalmist would say: “It does not matter so much what does or does not happen to us in this life, what matters is the way in which we respond to what happens.”
And the psalmist finds it possible to embrace the discipline of the Torah and the divine authority in which it is imbedded, because he does not construe authority as authoritarianism but sees it as the capacity to author creativity. As Walter Brueggemann observes,
[T]he obedience to which Israel is summoned . . . is ‘Exodus obedience.’ The God of Israel intends that the emancipatory power of the Exodus tradition should be a constant practice of Israel, permeating its public and institutional life. Thus the commands, rightly understood, are not restraints as much as they are empowerments. Those who obey are able to participate in the ongoing revolution of turning the world to its true shape as God’s creation. (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy p. 200.)
What is perhaps even harder for us to own, however, is the urgency that surrounds the psalm’s description of the choice. Presented as two contrasting ways of living, the writer frames the choice, describes the consequences and delivers a final verdict. The only thing harder to accept in our culture than a rule is the notion that our response to the rule will shape our destiny.
But to see the choice either as a substitute for dependence on God’s grace or as coercion is a trick of the modern and materialistic mind. The psalmist may candidly confront us with the consequences, but there is, nonetheless, an “Exodus obedience” that promises true freedom and lives planted by streams of water.
It is the modern, materialistic world that can imagine the choice, but without offering life. Shaped by the Exodus experience, the psalmist knows that the human spirit is and will be shaped by worship. The choice lies not with the decision to worship but with the choice of gods. So the psalmist would have well understood the words of the collect we used this morning.
Almighty and everlasting God,
increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity;
and, that we may obtain what you promise,
make us love what you command.