Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Bending Towards Justice

Bending Towards Justice
Psalm 52[1]
It’s not too hard to notice that the values and the principles taught in the Bible contradict those of our society.[2] That is, if we take the Bible seriously. The Bible’s values are determined by the confidence that God’s reign is the reality that is ultimately true in this world. The Bible looks forward to the day when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven: when justice and fairness prevail; when love and mercy and compassion define the human family. It is an outlook on life and on our world that will not let us stay comfortable with the “values” of our society. The Bible teaches us to hope that the affairs of this world are “bending toward justice.”
It’s also not too hard to discover what our true values are. In our world, winning isn’t just a good thing, or even an important thing, it’s the only thing that matters. We value winning and really don’t care what it takes to get there. In our world, money makes the world go around, and those who have the most money can spin just about anything to suit their every whim. In our world, might makes right, whether we’re talking about physical strength or other kinds of power. If we can do or say something and get away with it, we will, with little or no thought to whether it’s actually right. In our world, the only thought we give to justice is whether or not those we deem to be criminals get punished adequately.
We saw last week that the Psalmist attributed this state of affairs to the spiritual “powers that be.” And God essentially fires them for not seeing to it that his justice was done on earth as it is in heaven. But as we touched on last week, the Bible also addresses those who abuse their position and their power to get whatever they want, regardless of the consequences.[3] Not only the Psalms, but also the prophets rebuked the “high and mighty” for taking advantage of their power to take advantage of other people. They spared no one in the process— the wealthy, the powerful, even prophets, priests, and kings. Anyone who abused their power to benefit themselves was exposed by the truth they spoke.[4]
Our Psalm lesson for today unmasks the blatant evil in what those who are the “high and mighty” can get away with. The psalmist doesn’t spare anyone’s feelings in his rebuke: “you are plotting destruction. Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery. You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth” (Ps. 52:2-3). It’s not a pretty picture. He cuts through all the fanfare and the acclaim that can surround those who climb the ladder of success by stepping on anyone who gets in their way. And the essential message is that anyone who presumes to take this path in life will eventually find it to be their undoing.
One of the interesting features of this Psalm is that the “title,” which was very likely added later, seeks to identify a specific individual who was guilty of this kind of arrogance.[5] The psalmist finds such a villain in a story that took place when King Saul was pursuing David in the wilderness of Judea. It mentions someone most of us probably never heard of: Doeg the Edomite. What we have to understand is that in the days of ancient Israel, the quintessential villain probably would have been Doeg the Edomite.  Doeg was the man who informed Saul that David consulted with and received help from a priest named Ahimelech.  But worse than that, when Saul’s own troops refused to kill Ahimelech because he was a priest of God Most High, Doeg not only killed him, but also all the others who were with him—in all 85 priests!
Part of the problem with this story in the Hebrew Bible is that we never learn what happens to him.[6] There’s no resolution to the tension that’s left when Doeg the Edomite seemingly gets away with a vicious crime scot free.  That’s why the title of Psalm 52 designates it as a response to his treachery.  But in fact the Psalm addresses the problem of anyone who abuses their power and wealth to get what they want—no matter what it takes.  Psalm 52 promises those who “boast of mischief,” who practice this kind of blatant injustice, that “what goes around comes around.”
What this Psalm reinforces is the conviction that anyone like Doeg the Edomite will not get away with such blatant injustice without facing the consequences.  Even the worst of the “high and mighty” who apparently think themselves above the law and above God’s justice will one day learn the lesson that “you reap whatever you sow” (Gal. 6:7).[7]  It’s a truth that Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of stating: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[8] Those who seem to get away with all kinds of evil now will ultimately confront God’s judgment of their dirty work.
But the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ goes beyond the justice of retribution that says, “an eye for an eye.” The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus, the one in whom all the fullness of God dwells, the Lord of all the powers, does not resolve the problem of injustice by “breaking down forever” the villains of this world.  Jesus resolves the problem of injustice by reconciling all things to God. Jesus undoes the evil of those who arrogantly presume to abuse their power by “making peace” through his death on the cross. Essentially, he brings us all back to God and realigns our hearts to God’s ways And as the effects of that peace continue to work in the lives of people like you and me, perhaps we can catch a glimpse of this world “bending toward justice” after all.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/17/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV: 891: where he says that the depiction of the “mighty one” in Psalm 52 depicts “precisely what much of contemporary society consistently presses us to do—to ground our lives in nothing but ourselves and our possessions.” Cf. also Artur Weiser, The Psalms, 413: “Without trust in God man falls prey to the power of evil; he cannot help trusting in something and, if it is not God whom he trusts, then it is his own self or his wealth which he makes his idol, and even his malice appears to him to be a sign of strength of which he can boast.”
[3] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV: 890: “The mighty one is willing to use any means to get ahead, regardless of how destructive. In short, the mighty one represents the essence of wickedness in the Psalms: autonomy, self-rule.”
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 205: “The psalm was composed for a time when power joined to wealth was destructive of the social order and a tribulation and scandal for those who loved good and trusted in God. Its basic theme is the conflict between the wicked and the righteous in a world governed by God. … The basic confidence is that God will overrule the way of the wicked.” Cf. similarly H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-59, 511-512.
[5] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV: 890: “The superscription identifies this “mighty one” as Doeg, one of Saul’s servants, who informed Saul of David’s locale and killed the priests of Nob at Saul’s command (see 1 Samuel 21–22; 22:9 is quoted in the superscription). While Psalm 52 makes sense as the words of David in such a situation, it is much more likely that the superscription should be taken illustratively rather than historically.”
[6] Cf. F. Hossfeld  & E. Zenger, Psalms 2: A commentary on Psalms 51-100, 30: “The Samuel narratives leave Doeg’s fate open, whereas the psalm announces his punishment.”
[7] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:891: “In contrast to the affirmation that God ‘will uproot’ the wicked, …the psalmist knows the nature of true security: Life ultimately depends on God rather than on ourselves or our possessions (see Luke 12:13-21, esp. v. 15).” Cf. also ibid., “The punishment of the wicked is that by pursuing wealth they have cut themselves off from God, who is the source of life. Conversely, the reward of the righteous is that they are grounded in God and thus connected to life’s source and destiny.”
[8] Cf. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 16 August 1967. Accessed at http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry /where_do_we_go_from_here_delivered_at_the_11th_annual_sclc_convention/ . Dr. King very likely was paraphrasing from a statement made by Theodore Parker, a controversial 19th Century Unitarian minister and prominent abolitionist, in a sermon entitled “Of Justice and the Conscience,” published in Ten Sermons of Religion, 1853, 84-85: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” Accessed at https://ia800504.us.archive.org/21/items /tensermonsofreli00inpark/tensermonsofreli00inpark_bw.pdf.

No comments: