Oct. 3, 2021

Psalm 26

Mark 10:13-16


I had a friend in seminary who was appalled at the idea that a person might live a whole life outside the bounds of faithfulness and at the last minute receive the grace of salvation.  It may have been Karl Barth that she was objecting to.  “Here I am, living a good life, doing things right, and you’re telling me that somebody who sneaks in at the end gets the same reward?  No way!” she said.  

You get her point.  It seems kind of unfair.  In fact, there’s a parable we could apply to that very scenario in the gospels where workers in a vineyard all get paid the same daily wage even if they started just before closing.  People have a hard time with that story.  It’s un-American.  Those late workers didn’t earn what the others did!  

Though everyone in class could understand, most also agreed that it probably wasn’t my friend’s best moment.  First of all, it kind of begged the question, “What would you want to be doing instead?” Would you prefer to live without a sense of God in your life?  Would you prefer to be unloving and self-absorbed until repenting of all that kind of fun at the end of your life?  On top of that, it came across as a bit stingy.  Why was she so worried about grace given to other people?  Was she unable to see that perhaps she was in need of grace too?  

The memory came to mind as I read Psalm 26.  “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked with integrity… without wavering.  I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked.”  I suppose there is something admirable about the desire to live an honorable life.  But, that’s about as much as I can say for the Psalmist here, unless there’s also some value in the honesty of it all.  Like: God, I’m sorry that I’m not sorry that this is the way I feel!  I’ve been good and others haven’t, so it only makes sense that I would be rewarded and they wouldn’t.  There’s some real spiritual value in just laying out how you feel to God – even the feelings you aren’t so proud of – but I don’t really believe that that is what the writer is doing here.  

Instead, I agree with author Jason Byassee who begins his commentary this way, “Vindicate me?  Are you serious?  Are we really to pray asking God to turn the tables on our enemies on the basis of our ‘integrity’?  Our ‘trusting without wavering?’  Our eschewing of the worthless, the hypocrites, the evildoers and the wicked?  Christians of all stripes have loudly and consistency insisted that God justifies us in spite of our sins.  God does not look down, decide that we are better than others, and grant us the reward we deserve.  Psalm 26 is all backwards.”    

I have a worship planner that includes all four lectionary passages for each Sunday.  In it I drew a line from our Psalm over to our gospel passage: “I do not sit with the worthless” to “Let the little children come to me.”  For two out of the last three Sundays Jesus has taken a child into his arms.  And, in the other week he talks about being a stumbling block to one of these “little ones” who believe in me.  So, the contrast between what Jesus is doing and what the Psalm is saying is fairly stark.  As we’ve discussed, children, though loved, in the economy of the household were exactly “worthless.”  They were nonpersons, in a sense, with nothing to offer that would increase your or anyone else’s value.  It’s hard to imagine, but for Jesus to be taking children into his arms was as unexpected and scandalous as touching lepers, embracing Samaritans, calling tax collectors, eating with Pharisees, and befriending prostitutes.  What Jesus does, in essence, is the opposite of what the Psalmist is so proud of.  Jesus is God’s response, not to those who have earned it, but to those who need it.  He is grace, not reward; love, not vindication.  I think that’s why the powerless feature so heavily in the gospels: they are positioned to receive what it is that God is offering.  Those who have devoted themselves to earning it have actually closed themselves off to it.  

This issue actually came to a head back in St. Augustine’s day, which wasn’t all that long after the Romans were persecuting the Christians.  Understandably, there were some Christians – clergy and laity – who, wishing to preserve their lives, denounced the faith.  Bishops handed over precious books and burned incense to Caesar, which also understandably cast confusion upon the remaining faithful.  What’s it mean if the one who baptized you, or married you, or taught you the faith, subsequently denied it all?  Was any of it trustworthy?  Was your baptism, for example, still valid?  There was a group called the “Donatists” who thought not.  How could something holy (like baptism or the Eucharist) be passed along by those who were unholy? they argued.  The Donatists actually used verse 4 of this Psalm to justify not sitting down when gathered with the opposing side to hash out the argument.

Heading up that opposing side was Saint Augustine, who said that if the Donatists are really concerned, not sitting down probably isn’t a strong enough gesture.  If they want to protect themselves from everyone else’s impurities they probably shouldn’t even enter the room!  Augustine’s argument was that the church is not a community of the sinless.  Baptisms performed by unholy priests were valid because the holiness that matters is God’s!  The truths of Christianity were reliable not because we produce the purest of all people, but because we have the most loving and forgiving God.  

It occurs to me that it’s possible that the Psalmist would actually agree with Augustine.  If we read Psalm 26 as a reference to worship – and I think we should – our sense of it changes just a bit.  “I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O Lord, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds.”  Like Augustine, the Psalmist actually points to God’s action, God’s wondrous deeds.  The Psalmist counts himself among those with integrity because it is in “God’s house” that he now dwells.  It’s in this place that the Psalmist is able to claim forgiveness; it’s here that he is proclaimed innocent; here that he is able to “stand on level ground.”  

We could imagine him coming to the house of the Lord, gathering with a congregation of flawed people, confessing his sins and being pardoned, hearing the Good News of God’s love proclaimed, and in response, offering up his life, putting it in God’s hands, trusting that it’s God’s love, God’s truth that makes him.  We could imagine him hearing again God’s acts of salvation and self-giving; we could imagine him opening his hands to receive the ultimate symbols of God’s will to give him God’s very self, and we could imagine him taking those symbols into his body, also discovering that somehow they are hosts, conveying the very presence that they represent.  We could imagine him praying and opening his eyes anew to the discovery that he is not himself alone; – never alone – that the living God lives within him, and that with this God he is a new creation.  

We can imagine all of this for this man.  And then we can do the same for ourselves.