Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) Year B

If your congregation plans to highlight the Sunday of the Passion (instead of Palm Sunday), spending some time with this Psalm will benefit your preaching.

April 1, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 31:9-16

If your congregation plans to highlight the Sunday of the Passion (instead of Palm Sunday), spending some time with this Psalm will benefit your preaching.

While I usually encourage interpreting a Psalm on its own terms instead of through the lens of the gospel text, this week is different.

Since preachers will likely not choose the Psalm as the sole focus of the sermon this Sunday and since Jesus quotes this Psalm when on the cross, I encourage you to read it through the lens of Jesus’ passion. It is clear that the Psalmist and Jesus have had similar experiences; both have experienced the weight of emotional distress and physical anguish that have far-reaching consequences.

The Psalmist describes himself as one who is distressed from a life of sorrow and sighing (verse 10). He feels as useless as a broken vessel (verse 12). This distress has led to (and/or has resulted from) paranoia: “For I hear the whispering of many — terror all around! — as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life” (verse 13). He feels as if he has “passed out of my mind like one who is dead” (verse 12). Jesus had moments of being “distressed and agitated” as well (Mark 14:33). He himself says he is “deeply grieved, even to death” (verse 34). Like the Psalmist who prays to the Lord, Jesus “throws himself to the ground” and prays that “the hour might pass from him” (verse 35).

Both the Psalmist and Jesus experience ridicule, rejection and betrayal. “I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances” (verse 11). The loss of community is evident. Isolation ensues: “Those who see me in the street flee from me (verse 11). Jesus is also betrayed by those close to him. As predicted, Peter denied his acquaintance with Jesus saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about” (14:68). Many deserted and fled from Jesus (14:50).

Given these experiential similarities, it is no surprise that Jesus connects to the Psalmist’s words and employs them in his own time of lament.

Although both the Psalmist and Jesus experience physical ailments, there is a distinction. Whereas the Psalmist’s physical ailments (eyes, soul, bones and body wasting away and strength failing in verses 9 and 10) seem to be psychosomatic, Jesus’ physical ailments result from actual physical violence. “Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him . . .. The guards also took him over and beat him (14:65). Thorns were twisted into his head (15:17) and he was struck with a reed (15:19). Jesus was crucified.

There are two primary theological themes that arise from this comparison exercise. First, what does it mean that the language of the Psalms we employ was also employed by Jesus? A song of lament such as Psalm 31:9-16 is our language in our times of distress. When we cannot find our own words, we look to the Psalms. Jesus did the same. This was Jesus’ Scripture. The Psalmist’s words were Jesus’ words just as they are ours. God makes a connection with God’s people through language. Second, what does it mean to say that our God has experienced emotional and physical distress as the Psalmist has? God makes a connection with God’s people through the experience of emotional and physical distress. Your understanding of a theology of the cross is crucial for this week’s focus on Jesus’ suffering and death.

These theological themes are rich fodder for the Holy Week preacher. I suggested above that spending some time with this Psalm will benefit your preaching. In addition to the possible arenas of exploration stated in the previous paragraphs (God and God’s people using the same language, God and God’s people experiencing emotional and physical distress), it is worth examining the posture of prayer both Jesus and the Psalmist take.

Their prayers of lament affirm the trustworthiness of the one who hears the prayers. You have noted by now that only the middle section of Psalm 31 is read today. This section is the second of what might have been three psalms combined to make up Psalm 31. The first and the third sections are psalms of trust or praise. Indeed the end of today’s pericope (verses 14-16) anticipates the subsequent psalm of praise. The Psalmist may be desperate, yes, but there is hope for a hearing embedded in the desperation. Despite all of the suffering, there is a proclamation of trust. “I trust in you, O Lord” moves quickly to a three-fold: deliver me, let your face shine on me, save me.

Jesus, too, takes on this posture of prayer, as he cries out, “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” (15:34). Imagine the depth of Jesus’ lonely desperation as he throws himself to the ground and prays that this “hour might pass from him” (14:35).  Jesus, too, affirms trust in God even in the midst such despair: “Abba, Father,” he cries, “for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (14:36).

Through this Psalm we connect not only with the Psalmist, but also with God. Better said, this Psalm helps us connect God’s experiences with our own. A significant element is that both the Psalmist and Jesus claim God as their own as they cry in desperation, “My God, my God.” This God, the one who prays as we do and the one to whom we pray, is our God.