Commentary on Psalm 49:1-12
Lifestyles of the Rich and Ransomed
The four lectionary texts assigned for this Sunday have a common theme: wealth. More specifically, the texts are concerned with attitudes toward wealth. The theme is considered in a variety of literary types: a parable, a piece of wisdom literature, a letter, and a psalm. The comments below suggest a sermon on Psalm 49, drawing insights from the other texts along the way.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Foolish
Luke 12:13-21. Once Jesus told a story about a young farmer who worked hard and made lots of money. He bought more and more land so that each of the children would inherit a quarter section. We can imagine him buying a new tractor, a new combine, a couple of new automobiles, anything he wanted. Had the show existed at that time, he would have been a candidate for Robin Leach’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
But one night God spoke to him, saying: “You fool! Tonight you are going to die! And you can’t take all this stuff with you. You are a rich man. But when it comes to God, you are very poor.”
This man had no problems with his farming skills or even with money management. His problem, as Jesus diagnosed it, was his attitude toward his wealth. It had become his ultimate concern, his god. He would have been a candidate for a new TV show, “Lifestyles of the Rich — and Foolish.”
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23. The picture of the seeker in Ecclesiastes could have been drawn with that same wealthy young farmer in mind. The writer sat alone late one night and thought about what he had been doing with his life. He said to himself:
I hated everything I’d accomplished and
accumulated on this earth. I can’t take
it with me–no, I have to leave it to
whoever comes after me… What’s the point
of working your fingers to the bone if
you hand over what you worked for to
someone who never lifted a finger for
it? Smoke, that’s what it is. A bad
business from start to finish.
(Ecclesiastes 2:18-22, The Message)
So this successful, wealthy man reflected on his life and realized that he could not take it all with him: his collection of Rolexes, his BMWs, his countless sets of custom-made golf clubs, and all the rest. He too would have been an ideal subject for a segment of “Lifestyles of the Rich — and Foolish.”
Colossians 3:1-11. Yet one more example. Paul is writing to the young church at Colossae, telling them how to live after they have now become believers. “Throw away the old stuff,” says Paul, “like sexual impurity, uncontrolled passion, evil desire, and (now watch this one) greed, which is idolatry.” He advises them to put on the “new clothes” of “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” He says it again, advising them to get rid of more “old clothes,” such as “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.” Then, says Paul, put on the new clothes that fit you as Christians, like love and peace and gratitude (Colossians 3:5-15).
So we get the point. All of these texts point to the danger of greed, also known as covetousness or avarice. The commandment says “You shall not covet” and the RSV translates Colossians 3:5, “covetousness, which is idolatry.” There are warnings enough in Scripture and tradition against this sin. But now, is there any good news? We turn to the psalm for the day, considering it as a whole.
Lifestyles of the Rich — and Ransomed (Psalm 49)
Verses 1-4: Your Attention Please! This psalm is designed to provide instruction; see Psalms 1, 37, 73, and 119 for others in this category. The “hear” and “give ear” language could be imagined as the way a teacher begins a class session. Here is teaching deemed important enough to go out to the whole world (verse 1) with words of wisdom for all people, whether high-ranking or humble, rich or poor (verse 2). This teaching is the result of thought and reflection (verse 3), aimed at the afflicted (verse 5), intending to comfort them (verse 16).
Verses 5-15: They can’t take it with them! The problem that gave rise to the psalm is identified in verse 5: certain wealthy persons are making the lives of others in the community miserable so that they live in fear (verses 5, 16). The teacher gives three reasons why those being oppressed should not fear the wealthy: 1. They too will die (verse 9, summarizing 5-9); 2. When they die, they will not take their wealth with them (verse 10, summarizing 10-12); 3. Like so many sheep, these oppressors are marching toward Sheol, hell, the place of Death (13-14).
Verse 15 is a key statement because it makes the main point about God in this psalm, in the form of an “I” statement (see also verse 5). The sense of this verse is: “I won’t fear because God has ransomed me from the power of death and now I can live as a free person!” Here is one of those rare places in the psalms with a hint that beyond death, the believer will be with God (see also Psalm 73:23-24). Verse 16 puts it clearly, “So do not be afraid!”
Preaching on Psalm 49
But is there any Good News in these texts? The statement about God ransoming points in that direction (verse 15). We are directed toward the Good News as expressed in Mark 10:45, “and to give his life a ransom for many” and 1 Timothy 2:6, “who gave himself a ransom for all.” Because of God’s work through Christ’s death and resurrection, the ransom has been paid. We need not fear death (Romans 8:38-39). And now we can go on — or start anew — living as people who have been ransomed which means we are free, yes, free indeed! And rich, yes, rich toward God.