Monday, September 28, 2015

God Doesn't Want Our Bull

The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth…

He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
“Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge.

“Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God. Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;

your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.
For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?..

But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes,
or take my covenant on your lips?
For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.

You make friends with a thief when you see one, and you keep company with adulterers.
“You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your kin; you slander your own mother’s child…

“Mark this, then, you who forget God,
or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.
Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.
Psalm 50

Reflection – I now resume regular blogging, after a bit of a hectic week last week that made it impossible. Psalm 50 is a fine polemic against ‘lip service’, against a religion of external acts of piety unaccompanied by real devotion and sincere faith.

This is one of the great themes that develops in Judaism throughout the Old Testament, and in particular in the prophetic era. The sight of people dutifully bringing their sacrifices to the temple and saying all their prayers just right, but then proceeding upon leaving the temple to oppress their poor neighbor and engage in a host of sexual, financial, and malicious sins stirred up the prophetic spirit of God to some of the most fiery denunciations of hypocrisy we have, Psalm 50 ranking right up there with the best of them.

We have to be very careful in our reading and praying of this psalm. There are two ways to pray this psalm that are less than useless and positively harmful. First, we must not pray this psalm against ‘those people’. You know, the ones over there… those people who are not me! They’re the ones who are lousy hypocrites, right? Why, look at how they voted in the last election! Call themselves Christians, do they? Huh.

Yeah, that’s no good. We have no idea what is stirring in the hearts and minds of any other human being, so let’s not pretend we do and start handing out report cards for the faith life of our neighbors, OK?

The other harmful thing is to pray it against ourselves, in a certain sense. To say, “Oh yes. I am indeed a worthless piece of ****. No real faith here! Boo hoo. Well, may as well give up… (the last is often just under the surface of our consciousness).”

This is not helpful. So what is the place of this psalm and the many other related texts in a healthy spiritual life? Neither judgment and sneering condemnation of neighbor or of self, so what is it?
Psalm 50 and its ilk are texts above all against complacency. Against any kind of easy assumption that we’re all right with God – hey, didn’t I just go to confession and then receive the Eucharist? Vital and beautiful and tremendous as that is… it’s not enough. It must be lived, and this psalm is a clarion call to live the mystery we celebrate.

And to be, not down on ourselves over our failures to do so, but continually calling on the Lord for his mercy and grace. To be very aware that any one of us falls short of the total devotion, total consecration, total gift of self to God expressed in total love of neighbor. But in that awareness, not to become embittered or hopeless, but rather to turn again to God, always from a place of humility, always from a place of confidence in his love.

It’s pretty simple, really. We need to live lives fully aware that ‘without [Christ] we can do nothing’ (John 15:5). And that the external duties of piety and religious practice, essential as they are, must bear fruit in lives of virtue and justice, or they really are for naught. And that all of us together live in a state of profound need for God’s grace, so all of us together are simply one human family bound together both in our poverty and weakness, but also in the love of God. And it is this love of God which is the path of salvation He promises to show us, so long as we humble ourselves and call upon His name, plead His mercy, and daily try to do what is good and true in our lives.

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