Lectionary Reflection for All Saints’ Day

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 24:

While it opens proposing a grand view of divine sovereignty, Ps. 24 sets aside the view of God as distant as it moves quickly to moral exhortation with the explanation that abiding in God is not the side effect or reward for the pursuit of a pure way of life but is the ascent to that holy dwelling of God.

God’s power in establishing the cosmos may make him seem distant, but an excellent life will enable those who desire God to experience him as nearby. By drawing near to God, those who seek him will be blessed, and that blessing will infuse community life by their participation in it.

For the distant God of creation to enter the human heart as more than the idea of majestic power, heads must lift and gates of the hearts must open to make room for God to enter one’s life. Taken together then, the questions posed in Ps. 24 can be reduced to the question of how the transcendent creator who is also the commander in chief of armed battalions finds his way into human lives to lift them to himself.

Theodoret and Augustine read the upward-turning images in this psalm in terms of the ascension and resurrection of Christ. For us, “up” is moral-spiritual improvement. The exhortation of the psalmist and later Christian interpreters adjure readers to lift their sights to morally uplifted lives. It is a poem of possibility and encouragement.

For the Christian writers, to look up is to be brought near to God by the incarnate one who leads by going on ahead, first in resurrection and then in ascent to God. Both the psalmist and his Christian readers want to expand the self upward, thus giving hope.

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22):

The opening salvo (34:1–2) is two clipped declarations of what the speaker is doing now: blessing and praising the Lord continually, with words and in silence. He immediately turns to invite his audience to join his doxology and share his joy by magnifying and praising God together (34:3). Psalm 34:4 explains this praise and adoration of God in terms of the speaker’s own experience and uses it as an offering of encouragement. He sought the Lord, and the Lord relieved his terror.

Again, the speaker stares intently at his hearers. If they will also look to God (by living a wholesome life), their faces will not flush with shame. Perhaps he is implying that they will not be ashamed when trouble strikes because no one will say that their trouble is justly deserved. While it is clear that the speaker’s enemy is terror, he does not explain what causes it. However, he turns to his auditors and assures them that their confidence in God (literally “radiant faces”) will protect them from the comparable emotional distress of shame. A face radiant with confidence in God will not flush, for the person has nothing to hide and so nothing to fear, shame being the object of fear.

Another interpretation might be that no manner of humiliation can touch the radiance of those whose moral strength comes from their confidence in God. The speaker is building up his hearers’ confidence in their ability to withstand trouble by assuring them that they already have the strength they need, for they share the humble, reverent life that God favors. Psalm 34:7–9 offers protection for these pious ones.

The scene changes, or rather emerges. Until now there has been no scenery, no images to locate the narrative spatially. With 34:7 the reader finds herself encamped. It might be in a military theater, or, as 34:10 suggests, the jungle; it does not matter. The place is danger-filled. The pious who have heeded the singer’s advice are protected by an angel (their humility?) and saved, whereupon a peal of rejoicing goes up in one of the most famous lines in the Psalter. The poet applauds his audience: “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy is the one who takes refuge in him”.

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Psalms 1-50 (BTCB) by Ellen Charry, commenting on Psalm 22:1-15:

The pleader knows himself to have been cared for by God all his life. The complaint is that God is now shirking the responsibility that he took on at the onset of human life itself. The suppliant is not pointing to any virtue or merit of his own but to God’s role as giver and provider of life. The assumption is that God has no right to “slumber or sleep,” as Ps. 121:4 puts it. His watch does not end at midnight or at dawn. The poet reminds God that caring for people is a full-time job. Again one can see theism hiding behind the translucent curtain of theodicy.

The theology presented here is the precise opposite of the idea that suffering is punishment for sin or that God is angry and justly punishes in order to humble rebellious people. On the contrary, God is responsible for failing to alleviate the suffering. His love for the sufferer is so obvious to both the speaker and the human audience that it does not need to be stated but can be called upon to embarrass God into acting. The deep trust in God’s providential care attests palpably to the inability of the speaker to actually believe the words he spoke in 22:1. He cannot believe that God has or even could abandon him. The opening verse is an attention-getting device set against the deeper revelation that the speaker cannot abandon God, believe that God has abandoned him, or embrace the skeptical alternative.

In contrast to much Christian psychology, which holds that suffering should stimulate introspection on one’s sinfulness to generate humility and a turn to God in self-despair, the poet believes that celebrating God’s powerful deeds of rescue in the past will arouse confident devotion whatever one’s personal circumstance. The psalmist’s interest is not in fostering humility but in energizing devotion and praise. In a striking essay on Ps. 22, Ellen Davis argues that it is fundamentally a psalm of praise. The old mythos of salvation—that God will simply make bad circumstances go away—lies in the dust. It has been supplanted by a stronger resymbolization facilitated by poetic language that enables faithful suffering even in the absence of material rescue.

©2015 by Ellen T. Charry. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.