Summary: June 9, 2002 -- THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST -- Proper 5 Psalm 50:7-15 Color: Green Psalm 50 Title: “True moral behavior is really gratitude-in-action.”
June 9, 2002 -- THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST -- Proper 5
Title: “True moral behavior is really gratitude-in-action.”
This psalm is cast in the mold of a lawsuit. Since the prophets also used the format of the lawsuit to accuse Israel and the Israelites of sin, to lay out the evidence, to declare guilty and pronounce the sentence of condemnation, usually temporary, contingent upon real reform, this psalm has been described as a prophetic liturgy, much like a homily, probably delivered at a Covenant Renewal ceremony somewhat akin to the Catholic Church’s communal celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this psalm God acts as prosecutor first and then judge, pronouncing sentence. It has four stanzas: vv. 1-6, in which all rise as the judge enters, describing him in terms of the Sinai theophany; vv. 7-15, in which that God declares that religious ritual, i.e. sacrifice, is not the issue; vv. 16-21, in which the real issue, i.e. true praise and the neglect of the Covenant stipulations, is outlined; and vv. 22-23, in which sentence is passed. We cannot tell the time of its composition and every date from the 8th century prophets, especially its affinity with Hosea 6: 1-6, to the Persian period has been proposed. Given the classic prophetic theology of this psalm, it could have been written at any time in Israel’s history, even today.
Verses one to six, blending the style of a prophetic lawsuit wherein God, the judge, enters the courtroom with all the majesty and respect he deserves with the stage props of the Sinai theophany, the psalm leaves no doubt who is in charge. Indeed, only God speaks in the psalm; Israel listens in silence. Heaven and earth witness the proceedings.
Verses seven to fifteen, in these verses, one of the most exalted statements we have about God’s “otherness,” God makes it clear that he is in no way dependent upon humans, for sacrifice or anything else. It is the other way around. God specifically mentions every kind of animal sacrifice offered to him- bull, he-goat, beast, cattle, birds- and makes clear he eats or needs none of them. Indeed, all the animals of the earth are his already! At the same time, God makes clear that sacrifices as such are not the issue. However, they are acceptable to God, who neither needs them nor feeds on them, only if they represent the person offering them and only if that person is praising and thanking God elsewhere in his or her life. When God’s people recognize that it is they who are dependent upon him, then will he turn and grant their needs. The bribery that inauthentic worship represents does not work with God.
Verses thirteen and fourteen in the Living bible read, “No, I don’t need your sacrifices of flesh and blood. What I want from you is your true thanks; I want your promises fulfilled. I want you to trust me in your times of trouble, so I can rescue you and you can give me glory.” Which makes the meaning very clear what god really wants.
Verses sixteen to twenty-one, God gets specific about the charges he levels against his people. Citing examples from the second part of the Decalogue, the commandments having to do with relations between and among covenant members, the commandments against stealing, adultery, bearing false witness, God makes it clear that he will not remain silent. Were he to do so he would be like those he accuses, complicitous in their misdeeds. In their religious language and their rituals God’s people profess allegiance to him, but in their practice, in real life, they disregard him. The exploitation of others, especially the poor, by stealing from them, lying about them, by sexually exploiting them, renders any sacrifice to God or any religious practice hypocritical. God is not at all like humans, especially the wicked. It matters to him how humans treat him, but it also matters equally how they treat one another.
Verses twenty-two to twenty-three, God gives the basis for his judgments. True worshippers will be saved; false worshippers, those who profess without practice, will be condemned. The way to purify a sacrifice is not to wash the animal but to wash away the sins of the offerer.
This psalm could have been composed by any of the prophets. It expresses the fundamental prophetic message from God to his people, people of all times and places. God desires authenticity much more than correctness. In this psalm the contrast is between religious behavior, strictly speaking, that is, liturgical behavior, and morality. However, the contrast could also be drawn between “correct’ moral behavior, that is, “by the book” behavior, and real morality, morality guided by the Spirit rather than dictated by the law. The message of the prophets culminates, of course in Jesus, who did away with animal sacrifice and put self-sacrifice in its place. In doing so, he put all religious and liturgical behavior in its place as well. None of the prophets condemned “sacrifice,” outright or wholesale. They all recognized that it has its place, but, at the same time, cannot take the place of real ‘sacrifice,” which is praise of and thanks to God.