Monday, October 14, 2013

Psalm 41

The Psalm assigned for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time is Psalm 41, for its associations with the Last Supper, the gospel accounts of which are suggested for World Communion Sunday. The opening section of this psalm (vv. 1–3) asserts in general terms that the LORD blesses, delivers, protects, keeps, preserves, sustains, and heals "those who consider the poor." Such merciful people "are called happy in the land" (v. 2), for despite the many troubles from which the LORD preserves them, the assumption is that they will face them for a time — yes, they will have troubles, they will have enemies, they will fall ill on occasion — but the LORD will ultimately guard them and show them favor, and they will enjoy a good reputation as those who are so blessed.

With the phrase, "As for me ... " (v. 4), the psalm takes a decidedly specific and personal turn, and the focus remains on the psalmist and his circumstances until the final verse. What is remarkable in this section is the sense in which it is framed between, on the one hand, a plea for gracious healing, the rationale for which is a confession of sin against the LORD (v. 4), and on the other hand, a reiteration of the plea (with the expressed desire to "repay" the psalmist's enemies) attached to a word of self-assurance that the LORD must be "pleased with" the psalmist, and indeed has "upheld (him) because of (his) integrity" (vv. 10–12). The memory of the psalmist's confessed sin has receded entirely, and in fact the assurance is pregnant with eternal significance, for the LORD (sings the psalmist) has "set me in (his) presence forever" (v. 12).

In between the confession and assurance, an extended complaint (vv. 5–8) describes the conduct of the psalmist's enemies who visit him in his illness. What is startling about this description is the psalmist's characterization of the enemies' malice and their inwardly hostile motivations: "their hearts gather mischief" (v. 6), as compared to the description of the enemies' actions, which appear relatively benign and mundane. These enemies, unlike those in other psalms, do not ambush the psalmist or seek to murder him, but they simply wonder when he will die; their attempts at comforting words are "empty" and they go away gossiping. Their hostile actions consist of "thinking" the psalmist will soon expire (v. 8), of spreading the news of his condition "abroad" (v. 6) — no doubt in unduly pessimistic terms — and of whispering together: the kind of thing that occurs all the time in hospitals and nursing homes. It is even difficult to distinguish some of these actions, externally speaking, from the common practice of sharing concerns among the community of faith. Hence, in light of the sense in which the inward attitude is altogether decisive here, this psalm should stand as a cautionary tale for anyone who renders pastoral care or attends upon the sick.

One closing word of complaint escalates the psalmist's sense of betrayal, since he perceives the same conduct and hostility in his bosom friend who has "lifted his heel against me" (v. 9). This verse is taken up in the New Testament in association with the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, as the phrase: "who ate of my bread" (v. 9b) is connected with Jesus' identification of the the one who "dipped his hand into the bowl with me" (Matthew 26:23; par.), an action that connotes a clear lack of respect and deference, or even a brashness akin to that of Esau who exchanges his birthright for some stew. The phrase "lifted the heel against me" clearly signals more than a mere departure, or a turning of one's tail (so to speak), but a traitorous turning away that amounts to permanent renunciation, an irreversible rupture of friendly companionship.

Nevertheless, from all this, the LORD delivers the psalmist such that his assurance is certain, his vindication is declared, his confession is (largely) forgotten, and the psalm ends with a doxological outburst (v. 13), blessing "the LORD, the God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting," and concluding with a double "Amen." Thus ends the first book of the Psalms.

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