May 3, 2015
Fifth Sunday of Easter
This piece of Psalm 22, a psalm that begins in the familiar agony of Good Friday (in Matthew and Mark — see Ps. 22:1), says that YHWH answers the cries of the needy and fearful. The lectionary collectors couple these seven verses with the well-known story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 and John's metaphor of Jesus as the true vine in John 15:1-8. On the surface of these texts it is not easy to see how they relate one to the other. However, a more diligent look may reveal a deep and important connection between them.
In the psalm, the poet's cries of anguish are answered by YHWH, and the result is that the psalmist promises to praise the wonder of God's response. In the Acts story Phillip teaches the eunuch about Jesus from his interpretation of a passage from II-Isaiah, and the result is the praise of God by the eunuch due to his baptism and inclusion in the realm of God. In John's gospel, those who "abide in the true vine bear much fruit," specifically by "keeping the commandments" of Jesus, the chief of which is the demand to love one another just as he has loved them. Let us examine more closely how these ideas cohere as we continue our exploration of what it means to join the community of the Easter people.
First, the psalm. One of the difficulties here is that the Hebrew text of this psalm is exceedingly poor. The reason for such things is lost to the past transmission of the Hebrew text. Why some texts of the psalms should be relatively free of textual problems while others are riddled with them is simply not to be discerned. But Psalm 22 has far more than its share of these questions. For example, the NRSV lists nine footnotes for the psalm, suggesting that translation is contentious at each of those places. Of the nine, five of the footnotes are in the verses we face today. Indeed, verse 29 is practically unreadable, while verse 31 has been reconstructed by the translators to say something it may or may not say. What are English readers of the psalm to conclude from these problems?
I have long suggested that the footnotes of the NRSV could be multiplied by four or five times if the difficulties of the text were to be genuinely and fairly represented in the notes. Hence, some lines we clearly will never be able to translate to everyone's satisfaction. We merely must do the best we can and avoid making serious interpretive conclusions from texts we just cannot read. I conclude that Psalm 22:29 is flat gibberish, and should be avoided completely. And 22:31 is equally difficult so as to preclude full understanding. Thus, we are left with 22:25-28, 30 on which to build our reading.
In fact, the key to the movement of the psalm is to be found at verse 21b, which itself presents some Hebrew problems. Since 22:22 is the vow of praise that the poet makes because she has heard the answer of YHWH for her benefit — "I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters" — the previous line must by definition be a turning point from the dreaded silence of YHWH to the assurance that YHWH has both heard and answered. I would read the line "From the horns of the deceitful you have answered me," which appears to mean, "The treacherous ones had me in their power, but you responded to my cry for help." And because of that divine reply to the poet's plea, there follows the vow to praise and honor YHWH who can be trusted to hear and respond to the cries of God's people.
The answered psalmist promises to "pay (her) vow in the great congregation" by making certain that "the poor will eat and be satisfied; those who pursue YHWH will praise! May your hearts live forever!" Here the poet promises to YHWH that she will spend her life now in service to the poor and will lead them into the fulsome praise of YHWH. I can make no sense of the NRSV footnote that claims that the word they translate "poor" in the text is actually "all the fat ones" in Hebrew. That is plainly not correct. The Hebrew 'anawim has long been known to suggest a class of people that lie near the bottom of Israelite society and need the attention of those who have more resources than they. As a result of the attention that the psalmist now pays to these poor, all will join in the fulsome praise of YHWH who is the answerer of the anguished and the provider, through the offices of those who have cried out and been heard, of the goods and services that the poor always need. In the new community of the resurrected Lord, the poor are taken care of.
In the eunuch story, Phillip is miraculously directed to another soul in deep need of an answer to his probing question of the identity of the suffering one he reads of in the words of Isaiah. Phillip joins the man, who is far from poor in any material sense, in his commodious chariot, large enough for two men to sit on a bench while being driven to a destination by another. We may assume that the eunuch is not reading while driving, surely a hazardous activity even in the ancient world! Phillip enlightens the Ethiopian concerning the life and death of Jesus, baptizes him at the next pool of water, and vanishes from the scene (in a puff of smoke?), leaving the eunuch to pour out his praise to God, fulfilling the vow of Psalm 22.