Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

What makes a good guest?

the last fig
"the last fig" image by Lisa Murray via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

August 30, 2015

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Commentary on Psalm 15

What makes a good guest?

At summer’s end, when many people are returning from visits with family and friends, this is a timely question. There is an old joke that says a visitor and a fish smell the same after three days. Both stink!

But there are also guests who bring so much joy and contribute so richly to our well-being that they never wear out their welcome. We look forward to their coming and wish they would stay forever!

There are also instances when visitors become permanent members of a household. In our current economy, these arrangements are more common. We are no strangers to the dynamics of living closely together as guests and hosts!

Psalm 15 asks who would make a good guest in God’s home. The divine dwelling is identified poetically as a “tent,” recalling the tabernacle of the wilderness wanderings, and also as a “holy hill,” evoking the temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem: “O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” (15:1).

In sacred spaces as fragile as a cloth structure or as solid as a mountain, God stays with Israel through changing times. What is more, God welcomes guests!

Psalm 15 has been viewed as a liturgical entrance rite (see Psalm 24:3-6), but gate-keeping is not its purpose. Longer term arrangements are at stake. What kind of person may “abide” as a resident alien in God’s house? The verb “abide” is related to the Hebrew word for the landless stranger (ger), whom Israel is charged to protect (Exodus 22:20; Deuteronomy 10:18). In Psalm 15:1, we are asked to think of ourselves as immigrants seeking God’s protection.

The second verb in verse 1, “dwell” (shkn), is also rich, since it can refer both to people settling down peacefully and to God’s encampment in the wilderness tabernacle (mishkan, literally God’s “dwelling place”) and on Mt. Zion (Psalm 135:21). This word choice suggests cohabitation of a holy place by human and divine occupants.

After the first verse, the focus in Psalm 15 shifts abruptly to ordinary life. The rest of the psalm provides a thought-provoking answer to the question of who would make a good guest in God’s home (verses 2-5).

A series of descriptive verbs paints a portrait of the long-term visitor who would gladden God’s heart. What one does defines the person, whether acting for good or refraining from harm.

The NRSV paraphrases the masculine singular verbs in Psalm 15 by using the plural pronoun “those.” This translation is helpful because it is gender inclusive; however, it obscures the emphasis on each individual’s discernment, behavior, and speech. Every person makes a big difference!

Psalm 15 has a teaching purpose. It encourages us to think about how we as individuals, families, and communities are invited to live in God’s presence with joy and integrity. All the lectionary readings for this Sunday teach about values and behaviors (see for example, Deuteronomy 4:9).

The portrait of an ideal guest opens with a three-part summary of positive traits. The best guests are:

“Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak truth from their heart” (verse 2, NRSV).

Additional nuances of this beautiful orientation to the life of faith are captured by an alternative paraphrase. The ideal guest would be:

“The person who walks with integrity, does what leads to reconciliation, and acknowledges truth when making decisions” (verse 2, author’s translation).

“Walking” suggests that all we do is a lifelong journey in God’s company. What is “right” refers to the quality of relationships fostered by our behavior. The “heart” in Hebrew anthropology is the organ of deliberation and commitment to future action. Integrity, good will, and honesty are hallmarks of daily life with God.

Psalm 15:2 is comparable to the memorable verse in Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (NRSV).

The following verses develop the principles summarized in Psalm 15:2. In verses 3-4 there is a special emphasis on speech (similar to James 1:19, 26). What we say matters! The lack of civility in politics, social media, and interpersonal exchanges makes this an enduring topic.

The ideal guest refrains from speaking ill of others and from spreading harmful gossip. Humiliating critiques are avoided (verse 3), since shaming can cause damage rather than constructive change. Preserving the reputation of others is important.

Positive speech about others should also be discerning. The guest portrayed in this psalm intentionally lifts up for public honor those “who fear the LORD,” who live according to God’s wisdom. By contrast, those with baser motivations are best avoided (verse 4).

Regarding another type of speech, the imagined guest keeps promises even when it is not in this person’s own self-interest (verse 4).

The final verse of Psalm 15 treats systemic economic and legal concerns (15:5). Not charging interest on loans means not profiting from the poverty of the most vulnerable members of society. A positive implication is that interest-free loans may assist a neighbor out of a crisis.

In the legal arena, rejecting bribes signals a commitment to fairness in the courts. The integrity of the legal system promotes justice for all.

The description of the ideal guest is not exhaustive, but it is enough to suggest a whole way of life. There is resilience and stability in being God’s guest. Like the firm mountain of Zion itself (Psalm 125:1), the person who stays close to God will not be moved. (See Deuteronomy 4:7 for another reference to nearness to God.)

This promise does not exclude challenges and profound experiences of loss. We only have to recall Jesus’ crucifixion and the recent shootings of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the other Charleston Nine. Our daily lives as God’s guests are the holy ground from which we will never be shaken, whether we live or whether we die.