Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pearls Before Swine

I suppose I should say something about Psalm 109:8; or rather, all of Psalm 109. Or perhaps all of the Psalms. Well, why not all of the Scriptures?

I agree that Psalm 109 falls into the "difficult" category* (though I'd never go to C.S. Lewis for exegesis), along with Psalm 137:

1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

4 How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?

5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

7 Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
It made a fine Bob Marley tune, and a nice song for the eucharist scene in "Godspell," so long as the last five verses weren't used. There are many such Psalms in the Psalms. Matthew puts one, the first lines of Psalm 22, in Jesus' mouth on the cross. And while it ends with hope and reassurance, and leads almost directly to Psalm 23, Psalm 22 is certainly a song about the depths of despair. Which is a modern malaise we all identify with (or think we do), whereas the quest for vengeance, for justice on the level of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, is not supposed to be in our hearts or even in our scripturs anymore. So this is a "difficult" psalm; and made more difficult when it is taken out of context, chopped into little bits, and sprinkled on our civic discourse like so much parsley or seasoning or, in this case, like sprinkles on a political ice cream cone. The problem is not just the abuse of this psalm in this way; it's the abuse of scripture in general.

As I grow older and move deeper into what it means to be a minister (especially a minister without pulpit, a sort of rojin pastor), I reflect more and more on how Scripture, the holy texts of Christianity,* should not be used among people who do not understand the context of the words. If it weren't such an offensive image, I'd use the Biblical image of casting pearls before swine: except the people who are casting the pearls in the case of linking a prayer for the President to Psalm 109:**, are the swine, and the scriptures, even this "difficult" psalm, are the pearls. So the metaphor falls down; yet if I apply it as Jesus did, I'm as offensive as Jesus originally was; because, outside of Luke's gospel, there's little evidence in the gospels that Jesus was that concerned with the sensibilities or even the concerns of Gentiles. That concern comes from Paul, who never mentions the teachings of the historical Jesus, and from Luke, who is basically Paul's biographer. (This isn't to say Jesus scorned Gentiles, but he clearly gave them little attention or concern in the other synoptics, or in the Gospel of John, where Jesus is actually "schooled" by a non-Jewish woman!). The metaphor, you see, comes out of its context; and perhaps even in it's context it is "difficult" today. But that's only another reason not to throw it around freely, or to blithely use Scripture as if the audience one addresses all knows and understands those words as you do. As a pastor of a church I found out all too often that assumption was invalid inside the four walls of the sanctuary (and all too often the error was assumed to be mine; everyone is sure their interpretation of Scripture is the right one, and the pastor should mainly reinforce it. It's quelle scandale, as we say in Lubbock, when he/she does not.) Outside the confines of the believing community, it's getting harder and harder to find people who even know the "Bibilical stories" of Adam and Eve, or Jonah and the whale, or Noah and the Ark; much less any who understand the Psalms as the "prayerbook" of the Bible. In Calvin's church the only source for sung verse was the Psalms; but after 19th century America and Charles Wesley, almost no Americans know any of the Psalms beyond "The Lord is My Shepherd" (which everyone knows, like "The Lord's Prayer," only in the KJ version. Which is another matter....) But as I learned over the course of four years in seminary: unless you understand the scriptures from a confessional basis, you don't really understand the use or meaning or import or proper approach to the scriptures. They may be read as literature (I've taught them as such myself), but that is not the understanding of the Church Universal. While some passages in Scripture may be "difficult" (Psalm 109 is hardly the only one), that difficulty is changed by a confessional approach to those same passages. It's an approach only available to, and only understood by, the members of a community, and meant to be communicated only to those members by other members, be they ordained or lay. Even then, it is usually poorly understood, or even misunderstood. As time goes by, however, I become more and more convinced that, especially if the scriptures are "holy," heilige, set apart to remain pure, they must be handled as such, and not bandied about in secular discussions or political arguments as if they had only one meaning, one interpretation, one understanding, and we all, believer and non-believer alike, agreed on it.

The Scriptures, especially when used in an exhortation to prayer (itself a heilige practice which has no place in the public arena, be that arena a former basketball court, or in a TV studio in front of a camera crew), are misused when they are taken out of the community of believers and used to persuade or assault persons outside that community (which can be another community of believers as surely as it is a secular and wholly non-religious, or at least non-Christian, community). The problem with this "slogan" is not just the other verses in the Psalm, or the "difficult" nature of the words, or even the non-Christian application of those words to another person (who is permitted by "judge not, lest ye be judged," to judge another worthy of death from the hand of God, and ask for that death?). The problem with this slogan is that scripture is, to the believer, the living Word of God and a source of light and life to the believing community. It is a source of finding and understand the most Holy God. It is not a commodity, and it should not be treated as such. Those that do, damage all of us; and perhaps themselves, most of all.

*Though I will point out the Psalm tells a story, and ends with these words:

30 I will greatly praise the LORD with my mouth; yea, I will praise him among the multitude.

31 For he shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul.
It is, in other words, a Psalm seeking vindication by a righteous person, a person faithful to God. And part of the rebuke here is of the rich who condemn the poor; a hard attitude to disagre with, for me; though I suspect the people using this Psalm don't think President Obama is abusing the poor. The question of righteousness, as Krister Stendahl has pointed out in the context of understanding Paul, is a vexed one, almost a cross-cultural and anthropological one. Suffice to say in this short space that Psalm 109 should not be read out of its original context, nor read so simply as to be merely the words of a crank or an angry person. As Kathleen Norris reminds us, the Psalms are probably the most human document in the Scriptures. Reading them, we see ourselves, warts and all. Difficult, yes; but what would be more appropriate in a collection of books about the relationship between Creator and the Creation?

**and Judaism, but I only speak as a Christian

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