Lent 5B

March 19, 2012

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 12:20-33

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Jeremiah 31:31-34

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 51:1-12

    Author: Doug Bratt

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    Psalm 51 is a very familiar prayer for forgiveness, what James Mays calls a “liturgy of the broken heart.”  Like so many of the psalms, it’s the prayer of someone who is in deep trouble.  Here, however, the psalmist doesn’t complain to God about God or other people.  He recognizes that he alone has caused this trouble about which he prays.

    People have traditionally linked Psalm 51 to David’s sin of taking Bathsheba and Nathan’s prophetic response to it.  Its superscription even explicitly makes that link.  Yet even if it’s a later addition by biblical editors, even if David didn’t pray Psalm 51, he, as J. Clifton McCann, Jr. notes, could and should have.

    Psalm 51’s first five verses quickly heap “sin” synonyms on top of each other.  Yet Psalm 51 begins a plea for grace.  The psalmist immediately pleads for forgiveness of her sin.  However, she begs, in language that anticipates Luke 18:13’s tax collector’s prayer, for God’s mercy.  She recognizes that she doesn’t deserve God’s forgiveness.  She doesn’t even claim that she’ll somehow do better tomorrow or that her sin isn’t completely her fault.  Instead we can almost picture the psalmist as scarcely being even able to look up to God as she begs God to have mercy on her.

    The psalmist recognizes that his only hope for forgiveness lies in God’s unfailing love and great compassion.  This hope recalls Exodus 34’s account of the aftermath of Israel’s worship of the golden calf.  When Moses trudges back up Mount Sinai to receive a second set of tablets of God’s law, the Lord passes in front of him, saying, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands …”

    The beginning of Psalm 51’s prayer of confession mirrors in some ways Christians’ confession of sin.  God’s sons and daughters don’t individually or corporately confess our sins desperately hoping that God will change God’s mind about us and forgive us.  No, we humbly make our confession, pleading for God’s mercy on the basis of God’s forgiveness already graciously given in Jesus Christ.

    Yet those who preach and teach Psalm 51 may want help hearers reflect on our culture, society and own natural reluctance to accept such responsibility for wrongdoing.  Such reluctance is, of course, as old as humanity’s sin itself.  After all, Eve blamed the serpent for tricking her into sinning and Adam blamed Eve for giving him some fruit.  Since then people have been blaming other people or things for their sins.  Few refrains are more familiar to our culture than, “Don’t blame me.  It’s his (or her or their or its) fault.”  We naturally have little interest in joining the psalmist in admitting “I have sinned.”

    By contrast, the psalmist offers no excuses for her sins.  She doesn’t even use euphemistic phrases such as, “Wrong was done” or “Mistakes were made.”  She’s very straightforward as she talks about “my transgressions,” “all my iniquity” and “my sin.”  The poet pictures her sin as a kind of figurative stain on her life and conscience that she needs God to scrub away.  After all, she begs God to “blot out,” “wash away” and “cleanse me.”  It’s the image of ancient people washing dishes or clothing and modern people using various detergents and stain removers on stubborn stains.

    His sin is so real and pervasive that the psalmist confesses that it’s always before him, in other words, always on his mind.  He’s constantly aware that he’s sinned not just against other people, but also against God.  In fact, he admits that he’s only sinned against the Lord.  Rather than seeing this as an attempt to evade the hurt he’s caused other people, we can see this as an admission that the primary one the psalmist has hurt by his rebellion is the God who created and cares for him.  After all, as James Mays writes, “It’s the divine oversight of human life that makes talk about sin meaningful and necessary.”

    The stain that is her sin is, in fact, so pervasive that the psalmist admits that it was somehow a part of her even at her conception.  Of course, systematic theologians may have good reason for seeing this admission as evidence for the doctrine of original sin.  However, the psalmist probably isn’t thinking so systematically.  She’s confessing that her sin isn’t some kind of aberration, out of character for her.  She admits that her sins spring from her natural sinfulness, her natural inclination to rebel against God’s good will and purposes.  The psalmist confesses that she isn’t just a sinner; she’s also sinful.

    In fact, the psalmist is so aware of the pervasiveness of his sinfulness and sin that he longs for a radical transformation.  Often psalmists plead for a change in their situations.  This psalmist desires a change in himself.  He knows that he has sinned against God and done what is evil in God’s sight.  However, he desires “truth in the inner parts,” “wisdom in the inmost place,” “a pure heart” and “a steadfast spirit.”

    Yet the psalmist also implies that she can’t make this change on her own.  She suggests that only the God who created and cares for her can transform her.  She longs for God to cleanse her with “hyssop” so that she can be clean.  She desires that God wash her so that God makes her whiter than snow.  So Psalm 51 features a dramatic contrast between sin as stain and that of forgiveness as cleanness.  It’s as if the psalmist couldn’t make any starker the contrast between the condition of sinfulness and that of forgiveness.

    However, the psalmist doesn’t just long for mercifully forgive him.  He also begs God to give him a “pure heart,” “steadfast spirit” and “willing spirit.”  His life has been marked by consistent rebellion against God and missing of obedience’s target.  However, he longs for an obedience and faithfulness that is “steadfast.”  In other words, the psalmist pleads with God to give him what James Limburg calls a brand new beginning and a fresh start.  In the light of the New Testament, we’d add that he longs for a new spirit that has been washed in Jesus Christ’s blood and scrubbed clean by the Holy Spirit.

    Illustration Idea

    One can hardly read Psalm 51’s imagery of sin’s stubborn stain without thinking of one of William Shakespeare’s most memorable lines in the play Macbeth.  Lady Macbeth has mocked her husband for claiming that even an ocean couldn’t wash his hands clean of his guilt of murdering King Duncan.

    Eventually, however, she finds King Duncan’s blood as also having permanently stained not just her hands, but also, literally, her conscience.  So she says, “Out, damn’d spot! out, I say! – One; two: why, then ‘tis time to do’t. – Hell is murky. – Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier and afeard?  What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our pow’r to accompt?  Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?”