Yes, Virginia, You May Preach the Psalms: Reflections on Psalm 51:1-12

Lectionary Reflections
Psalm 51:1-12
March 22, 2015
5th Sunday in Lent

As we Hebrew Bible lovers cruise through Lent, we are confronted with the same texts each year, or nearly so. The New Testament, of course, controls the choice, which gives us pericopes that the earliest Christian communities read in the light of their experiences with Jesus. I am not saying this is a problem in and of itself; I am a Christian clergyperson, and I have used the same texts in my preaching to suggest that there are similar concerns in each of the two testaments of our Bible, though I have tried to be careful not to suggest that the only value of these Hebrew Bible texts may be found in their predictive power only for New Testament stories that supposedly "fulfill" them. That, I have tried to say over and over, is a denigration of the Hebrew Bible, implying that the older texts have no meaning for their own composers, but only have value when Jesus comes along. Down that road we find supercessionism, the notion that once the New Testament appears, the only possible meaning of Hebrew Bible texts can be found in its pages. I reject that notion entirely.

However, two thousand years of Christian exegesis of Numbers 21, Jeremiah 31, Isaiah 40, 42, 45, 50, 52, and a host of other passages have fixed in more than a few Christian minds the idea that I am sadly and dangerously mistaken. I have attempted in these short articles over now nearly five years that my stance has merit, despite the thousands of Bible readers who clearly think otherwise. I will not rehearse all those arguments here again, you will be relieved to know. But I fervently hope that you have taken seriously what I have said about the meaning of those Hebrew Bible texts for their own Hebrew Bible contexts. Well, I suppose you would not read my stuff at all if you did not have at least a smidgeon of interest in what I have said. Enough of my self-justification, which, as you will see, is part of what Psalm 51 is about!

As you all are aware, when the trumpets and Hallelujahs of Easter are packed away for another year, the lectionary turns to the Acts of the Apostles as a way to trace the course of the rise of the early church after the resurrection of the Christ. That story runs until Pentecost when Ezekiel 37, as a Hebrew Bible pre-story of Acts 2, shows up, and the Hebrew Bible is off and running again. This year that amounts to six weeks of Acts. I have absolutely nothing against Acts; I have in the previous years of this column addressed those texts as well as I could, proving that even I, on occasion and when forced, do read the other testament (just kidding, a little). Acts has some fabulous stories in its pages, and I emphasize the word "story," since any actual history in its pages is limited by Luke's desire to tell the church's story through his theological eyes, a fact that has confounded and confused readers of his words for two millennia when set alongside Paul's own letters. The two quite often simply do not say the same things!

This year I have decided to avoid the Acts texts, and beginning with this article, I intend to focus my attention on Psalms rather than the usual cascade of Jeremiah and Isaiah passages that the end of Lent will offer. I want to look at the Psalm texts for the next ten weeks. This decision may sound decidedly odd. When I was in seminary, several hundred years ago, we were told that the psalms were not a fit subject for a sermon, since they were in fact liturgical acts, not primarily theological ones. Let me answer that claim with a precise theological locution: hooey! Psalms are exactly theological poems, and are thus subjects to sermonic refection as much as any other text, if not more so. I might suggest that a sermon series on the lectionary's psalms could be a helpful way to enlighten and inform your congregation concerning literature they may know little about.

Today's psalm is very famous, made so by the Roman Catholic centuries old designation of Psalm 51 as one of its "penitential" psalms, that is, psalms especially good for those who would pray about their own deep and vast shortcomings, bringing them without reservation and hiding to a God who is bent on listening and responding to such cries of anguish. The very fact that this psalm, along with six others in the Psalter, is called "penitential" may make it generally off-limits in a culture where blaming someone else is endemic. Facing our shortcomings and limitations, what the church has long called sin, is rarely done seriously in our day. Rather than pray a psalm, we favor a trip to the therapist, who has become, rather than God, the go-to aid for our pain and suffering. By these comments I in no way wish to call into question the value of competent therapy; I have had much valuable therapy in my own life. Still, when "sin" is named "self-hatred" or "self-denial" or "self-fill in the blank," the danger is that our problem is all about our inability to love ourselves. This, though perhaps true in many cases, tends to focus our problems on our own navels rather than see our "issues" in the light of God's hopes and plans for us as a loving people in community.

3/17/2015 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.