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Summary: Year C. 4th Sunday of Lent March 25th, 2001 Psalm 32

Year C. 4th Sunday of Lent March 25th, 2001 Psalm 32

Title: “Forgiveness”

According to the tradition of the Church and because of its emphasis on the confession of sin, this is one of the seven Psalms of forgiveness which include Psalm 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. It does give testimony to the need to repent, especially of long-denied sin, and confess to God, but it also gives testimony to the incomparable bliss of experiencing forgiveness. In fact, it was the favorite Psalm of St. Augustine, a man who knew both the agony of guilt and the ecstasy of God’s love and who wrote commentaries on all the Psalms. He even had this one inscribed on the wall of the room where he lingered before death so he could read it and have others read it to him as he lay dying.

The beginning, verses one and two and the end verses eight to ten, are definitely written from the Wisdom tradition, while the middle verses, three to seven, is structured like an individual Psalm of Thanksgiving. The former would be a written composition from the get-go, composed by a Sage or Wisdom teacher, to be learned in the classroom, passed on in informal instruction in the home and or synagogue, and used in private prayer. The latter would be part of a typical thanksgiving ceremony in which the worshipper offered a sin offering and gave thanks for deliverance, possibly some form of sickness, physical or emotional. This would be sung or recited in the Temple in the presence of others. So, this Psalm is a combination of the two, a basic thanksgiving Psalm adapted according to the Wisdom tradition, probably written rather late in Israel’s history. As such it is useful as a prayer and as an instruction about sin and forgiveness.

In this Psalm there are three different words for sin. One is Hebrew pesha`, translated here as “fault.” It is rebellion against God’s authority, which includes violating one’s own conscience. The second term is Hebrew hatta’ah, translated here as “sin.” It means missing the mark or falling short of the goal, as would an errant arrow. The third term is Hebrew `awon, translated here as “guilt.” It means “crookedness” or “deformity.” The image evoked is a tree gnarled or twisted or crooked, an unnatural shape, deformity or perversion. While all three terms have many nuances, the Psalmist is using them here, by dint of poetic license, to refer to sin, singular and all-inclusive, rather than sins, plural and of different types. All three terms are used as synonyms to refer to the fundamental sin of idolatry, worshipping the creature instead of the Creator or acting as if one is a god oneself, determining by fiat what is and is not reality.

Likewise there is a triad of terms for forgiving sin. The first one is Hebrew nasa’, translated here as “removed.” It means lifting a heavy burden and carrying it away. The second term is Hebrew kasah, translated here as “forgiven.” It means “to cover.” When God is the subject, to “cover” sins means not to “cover up” but to “treat as though not there.” When a human is the subject “cover” usually means “cover up” in the sense of “hide” or “deny,” as in verse five. Certain aspects and consequences of sin do remain even after forgiveness. Restitution or amends are required. This term suggests that God covers them over without denying their existence. The third term is Hebrew hashab, translated here as “imputes.” This is the same word used in Genius 15: 6, where Yahweh “reckoned” righteousness to Abraham and is quoted by Paul in Romans 4: 6 to stress that divine forgiveness is a free act of God rather than an earned condition of humans. It means “amnesty.” The contrast throughout the Psalm is not between a sinless person and a sinner, but between a forgiven sinner and an unforgiven, because unrepentant, one. This contrast is present throughout the psalm, even in the thanksgiving sections of verses three to seven.

Verse one, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” “Happy” attempts to translate the Hebrew ‘ashre whose etymology is uncertain and whose meaning defies a one word translation. It means “Oh the bliss of,” “Lucky,” “To be admired,” “Congratulations to,” “Good for the one who,” “Happy,” “Blessed,” “How rewarding the life of.” It really requires a string of translations such as this one to get the flavor of this rich term. This condition is never caused by human power or will, but the result of trusting in God and doing what he reveals or living according to his principles for life laid down in Scripture. There are many such beatitudes, Blessings in the Psalms and in Wisdom Literature, especially the Book of Proverbs. In this case, the happiness of the forgiven sinner is held up for admiration and imitation. Behind the statement is the Wisdom teaching of how foolish a person would be not to admit sins and be forgiven. The experience of forgiveness is overwhelmingly powerful and positive and is but a sincere confession away. This Psalm is teaching, in so far as it is expressed in the presence of other humans, as much as it is prayer.

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