Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

A Response to the First Reading

July 11, 2010

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Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

A Response to the First Reading

In these difficult economic times, how much we want to hear Deuteronomy’s promise that God will make us abundantly prosperous in our undertakings and in the fruit of our bodies, livestock, and soil (30:9). No need for another stimulus package. A God-ensured economic recovery must surely be right around the corner. Yet, as a response to this reading, Psalm 25 leads us to pause and contemplate what it means to prosper in God.

Psalm 25:1-10 is not a heartfelt expression of gratitude for a windfall, but a heartfelt expression of trust in God. “The first ten verses of the psalm, which make up the present lection, constitute, at root, a theological reflection and heartfelt plea rising out of that reflection.”1  In fact, rather than a rousing chorus of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” these verses are an introit to lament and an expression of the trust that makes it possible to complain to God. The psalmist asks God for instruction on how to avoid shame and disgrace and then provides instruction of those who wait on the Lord.

To prosper in God is to adopt a stance in life that is embodied and embedded in prayer. “To you, O Lord, I lift my soul,” the psalmist declares (25:1). Anyone who has regularly sung Psalm 141 as part of Vespers or Evening Prayer will find in these simple words a profound description of prayer. To lift up one’s soul to God is shorthand for lifting up one’s hands in an outstretched position in prayer. The gesture signifies holding one’s conscious identity, one’s life, outstretched to God in sole and complete dependence upon God and God’s help. To pray, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (25:1) “is a psalmic synonym for ‘In you I trust’ (verse 2) … and ‘I wait for you’ (verses 3-5, 21).”2  To prosper in God is to own and acknowledge one’s utter dependence upon God.

Help and Instruction
The First Reading moves quickly from a promise of economic prosperity (Deuteronomy 30:9) to a subtle call to obey God, observe God’s commandments, and to turn to God with all one’s heart and soul (Deuteronomy 30:10). In like manner, Psalm 25 links God’s help and God’s instruction or guidance. The psalmist asks for both. The soul lifted up to the Lord and set squarely on God does not distinguish between God’s saving power and everlasting covenant and God’s teaching. In fact, the former comes in and through the latter. To prosper in God is to be open to and eager for God’s instruction. This sounds obvious and inviting. Yet, Jesus’ parable (Luke 10:25-37) reminds us that God’s ways may be difficult, counter-intuitive, even absurd. God’s paths may run counter to our best thinking and our understanding of God’s will. God’s truth will surely challenge and contradict what we understand it means to prosper. The psalm reminds us that God’s instruction comes from prayer rather than study, from God rather than human wisdom and human teachers. Though helpful, reason and common sense are insufficient. To prosper in God is to trust God enough to receive the help that comes with God’s teaching.

Bold and Selective Remembering
The psalmist demonstrates that prospering in God includes trusting God enough to boldly exhort God to selective remembering. The psalmist calls the Teacher to whom he looks for instruction and guidance to remember “your mercy” (25:6), to forget “my transgressions,” and to “remember me according to your steadfast love and for the sake of your goodness” (25:7). God is asked to remember God’s own goodness and love because they are from everlasting and to forget the psalmist’s youthful sin, which is in the past.

God is Gracious and Upright
We can receive God’s instruction and ask God to selectively remember because of who God is. “You are gracious and upright, O Lord,” the psalmist declares (25:8). God is compassionate and merciful. Then the psalmist elaborates. God teaches (as opposed to punishes or rejects) sinners in God’s way. God leads the lowly in justice. All God’s paths–which the psalmist has asked God to teach him (25:4)–are steadfast love and faithfulness (25:10). Faced with waiting, surrounded by enemies who are treacherous and seek to put to shame, burdened by one’s own sin, we can trust our gracious and upright God whose ways are steadfast love and faithfulness. Prospering in God comes from actively trusting in God and eagerly longing for God’s response.

Preaching Psalm 25:1-10
Even as our government and church seek a plan for fiscal prosperity, Psalm 25 provides a plan for prospering in God. The psalmist’s plan is to pray to God, actively acknowledging the utter dependence upon God, receiving the help that comes with God’s instruction, and exhorting God to selective remembering. This leads to prosperity akin to that of a Samaritan who upon seeing a neighbor in trouble was moved with pity. This kind of prosperity is only possible because of who God is, the gracious and upright Lord who, in the words of the reading from Deuteronomy, “will make you abundantly prosperous” (30:9). Proclaim how Christ is like that Good Samaritan to us and then how Christ will make us prosperous like him. Then invite the congregation to pray, depend, be taught, and exhort God to both remember and forget.

1Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A. Strawn (eds.), Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 109.
2James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 124-125.