Proper 18A

September 01, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 18:15-20

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 12:1-4

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 149

    Author: Doug Bratt

    Comments and Observations

    Who or what are saints?  Those who preach and teach this psalm might begin leading worshipers through Psalm 149 by exploring with them their own definitions of sainthood.  This psalm, after all, refers to saints not once but three times (vv. 1, 5 & 9).

    Christians sometimes think of saints as people who are extraordinarily godly.  They’re exceptional in their Christ-likeness.  Saints in the Roman Catholic Church must have at least two posthumous miracles attributed to them.  There are even secular definitions of saints.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a saint as, among other things, “a person who is very good, kind or patient.”

    In the Hebrew, however, saints are the hasidim.  Their name is related to the noun hesed, which refers to God’s own steadfast love.  So we might say according to the Old Testament, saints are people who respond to God’s gift of God’s steadfast love with their own steadfast love.

    By God’s grace through Jesus Christ, then, all those who worship the Lord in spirit and in truth are saints.  So how might Psalm 149 help us to think about what that means?  Saints are those whom the psalmist invites to “sing a new song” (1).  While that might sound like an summons to sing only the latest songs, hymns and spiritual songs, it’s perhaps better understood as a call to sing about the new things God is doing in our lives.

    Saints are alert to God’s movement, new and old, in both their lives and the world, and are eager to praise God for it.  That praise offered by the saints is also exuberant and noisy.  They praise God with dancing, making melody to the Lord with tambourine and harp (3).  To some Western Christian ears, however, such forms of praise sound dissonant.  Perhaps that dissonance, however, can open avenues for those who preach and teach Psalm 149 to help worshipers, the “saints,” to explore what it means to sing to the Lord a new song within their own contexts.

    Saints are those in whom God “takes delight” and whom God “crowns … with salvation” (4).  This concept of God delighting in God’s adopted sons and daughters may be new for (or perhaps largely forgotten by) some worshipers.  People influenced by the Stoics’ views of God may be uncomfortable with the idea of God being moved at all, to say nothing of being moved to delight.  Those who preach and teach Psalm 149, then, have a wonderful opportunity to remind them worshipers that, while we’re naturally sinful, for Jesus’ sake God delights in us.  God takes pleasure in God’s children.  God even crowns God’s sons and daughters with “salvation.”

    If only the psalmist had just stopped at verse 5a.  If she’d just ended her stirring psalm with, “May the praise of God be in [the saints’] mouth.”  But the poet doesn’t.  She goes on to write, “May … a double-edged sword [be] in [the saints’] hands …” Suddenly this lovely psalm seems to take on a violent edge.  It’s as if the saints are to not only fill their places of worship with praise.  They’re also to fill their hands with weapons of revenge and punishment (7).

    Of course, we sometimes try to soften the end of Psalm 149 by pointing out, as Richard J. Clifford does, that the conjunction “and” turns the statements of verse 6a and 6b into a comparison.  In that interpretation, the psalmist says something like, “May the praise of God in their mouths be a double-edged sword in their hands.”  In that way the saints’ steadfast love for God and their proclamation of God’s sovereignty becomes a kind of military campaign against kings and kingdoms who claim to be sovereign.

    While that may be a valid interpretation, those who preach and teach Psalm 149 using the New International Version translation of the Bible must remember that the NIV doesn’t leave much room for such an interpretation.  Its “May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands” sounds like a call for saints to “arm” themselves not only with praise to God, but also weapons of war.

    Some biblical scholars, like James Mays, see the psalmist calling Israelite worshipers to literally take up the sword to execute God’s vengeance.  Of course as Mays notes, “Sword without praise would not serve; only the sword that can be drawn in praise of the Lord can serve.”  Worshipers do not take their own vengeance.  They only carry out “the sentence written against them” (9) by the Lord.

    While our contemporaries, whose 21st century is already drenched by blood spilled in warfare and violence, may shrink back from such an interpretation, it finds some support in the holy wars to which God called Old Testament Israel to launch against God’s enemies.  God, in fact, did call Israel to take up the sword against the Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites and Canaanites in the land of promise.  Israel, of course, failed to take carry out God’s punishment against all of those enemies of God.  The results were spiritually devastating for Israel.  It’s sobering and perhaps worth remembering that as the Israelites took up the praise of those enemies’ gods instead of asserting God’s rule over them, their praise to the Lord quieted.

    Illustration Idea

                 In a sadly ironic twist on Psalm 149’s end, some of James Foley’s Roman Catholic contemporaries call him a martyr, with a few saying he should be considered a saint.  Foley was an American journalist whom Middle Eastern thugs brutally beheaded earlier this summer. David Gibson, in an article of the Religious News Service (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/26/james-foley-martyr_n_5718335.html) notes, however the difficulty of determining whether someone is a martyr.  First, the Roman Catholic Church says someone must show evidence they held onto their faith in their final moments.  Martyrs must also be killed explicitly because they’re Christians.

    All people of goodwill genuinely grieve Foley’s death and its manner.  However, Christians can be thankful the Bible sets the bar for “sainthood” at least somewhat lower than parts of Christ’s Church does.

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 13:8-14

    Author: Stan Mast