Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Your Judgments: Justice and Mercy in Psalm 119

The word judgment has negative connotations in today’s conversation.  To say of a group that “they are so judgmental” is essentially to say they are unapproachable and unattractive because they judge others to be less than themselves. But if you substitute some of the other possible ways to translate the Hebrew word mishpat, you might say that “they are so just” or “they respond so appropriately, so rightly.”  It’s clear that the idea behind mishpat is one we are actually attracted to—the ideas of justice, equity, even-handedness, fairness. It comforts us to be able to say with the psalmist,  “Righteous are You, O LORD, and upright are Your judgments” (Psalm 119:137). This can be paraphrased to show the emphasis and insistence of the psalmist: “Just are you, O LORD, and just is your justice.” The word “upright” places in mind an absolute vertical line between heaven and earth.  This stands and stands firmly. We need this to be so.

We notice particularly when we are treated unjustly. “How many are the days of Your servant? When will You execute judgment on those who persecute me?” (Ps. 119:84).  “I have done judgment and righteousness: do not leave me to my oppressors” (Ps. 119:121).  We all feel it keenly when someone harasses us, hems us in, dogs us, exploits us, violates us. Like this psalmist, we appropriately take these acts of enmity against us to God. “Vengeance is Mine, and recompense” (Deut. 32:35) and “Say to those who are fearful-hearted, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, With the recompense of God; He will come and save you’” (Isaiah 35:4).

I confess that this is often where I have to start when I feel wronged. I start by praying for justice: “The Lord watch between us while we are estranged, while we are enemies.” Keep an eye on that person, God, and bring your justice to sort things out between us. After a time of praying this way, I often find that God shows me how I too have been unfair, have done wrong in the relationship. God does indeed sort things out fairly.  And in the word “recompense” (shillem) is not just the idea of “paying someone back,” as we so often want to do or want God to do, but the idea of removing the injury, making peace, making good, making whole (shalam). 

This hidden peace-making is emphasized overtly in Jesus’s words, But I say to you, love your haters, wish good to those who wish you harm, act honorably to those who detest you, and pray for those who insult, abuse, and threaten you and drive you away, that you may be children of your Father in heaven, who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45). After I have prayed for justice for awhile, I come to recognize that I actually want my innocence vindicated, more than I wish harm to the other person. The words of Jesus help prevent me from escalating the conflict.  Paul gives very similar advice: “Repay no one evil for evil, injury for injury. Wherever people look, let them see you care for the honorable, the excellent, the good, the honest. If you are strong, make and keep peace with all. … Do not be conquered by evil, by what is wrong, but conquer evil with good, with what is right” (Romans 12:17-21).

“My soul breaks with longing for Your judgments at all times” (Ps. 119:20), writes this psalmist. “My entire being breaks into pieces, is crushed with longing for Your justice now and always.”  And yet, to be fair, it is not always comforting to realize God is just.  The psalmist wrote, “My flesh trembles for fear of You; and I am afraid of Your judgments” (Ps. 119:120).  “My body shivers, my hair stands on end from terror and dread; I respect and fear your justice.”  I remember learning from Rebecca Manley Pippert (Out of the Salt Shaker…) about “the myth of innocence” we carry as regards ourselves. The unbelieving shrug, palms up, of the athlete who has just been whistled for a foul is a tiny example of our inability to see clearly how we have done harm or how we have omitted doing good. It is a heavy burden to continually have to protect our image and prove our innocence; if we can lay it down and let God sort things out, we will find freedom in God’s justice.

As we pray for justice, we will soon learn to add these prayers as well: “Look upon me, and be merciful to me, as Your judgment is toward those who love Your name…Hear my voice according to Your lovingkindness: O LORD, revive me according to Your judgment…Great are Your tender mercies, O LORD: revive me according to Your judgments (Ps. 119:132, 149, 156).  “I love you, God, the One who is; be merciful, be gracious, be just to me. Hear me because you are good, kind, and faithful; sustain my life with your justice. You cherish me, you love me tenderly; your justice keeps me alive.” 

George MacDonald said that God’s mercy and God’s justice are two ways we see the same attribute of God.  He said that God will make every excuse for us that can be made, and that God will also treat us as responsible where we are responsible.  God is glad to see the muddy child run into God’s arms, and God will lovingly and tenderly scoop the child up, disregarding the dirt, and equally lovingly and tenderly wash the child clean.

As we pray for God’s justice, as we pray for God’s mercy, as we do what Jesus tells us and what Paul reinforces, we will become more just and more merciful.  People will not see us as judgmental, but as fair and kind.  “Make my whole self fully alive and whole, and I will flash forth light; your justice surrounds and helps me” (Ps. 119:175).  “Let your light shine out where others can see your good, beautiful, honorable, excellent works and celebrate the shining splendor and majesty of your Father who surrounds you and encompasses the universe” (Matthew 5:16).  

Walk this Way

I learned the first sixteen verses of Psalm 119 when I was a fifth-grader, but I’ve never really liked this psalm.  I was a missionary kid in boarding school. My life was full of rules already, so this psalm, with its continual emphasis on love for the law, statutes, precepts, commandments, didn’t comfort me at all. As the commentary in The Jewish Study Bible points out, in this psalm, unlike most other psalms, the object of adoration and love seems often to be the law rather than God’s self. I think I was (and am) hungry for relationship, rather than rules.

However, I am never off the hook with God, and I recently felt compelled to spend some time exploring this psalm about the law. I like to look inside the words for movement and life and also think about what Jesus said that might relate to the emphasis of Psalm 119.

I noticed right away the recurrence the idea of “the way.” I turned to Blue Letter Bible on the internet to help me explore the Hebrew words. The two main words are derek and ’orach. They can mean ways, road, path, direction, journey, road. Metaphorically, they work like English to stand for how I live my life. I became more hopeful.  Perhaps this will be a psalm of movement, of journeying, rather than the static law-abiding psalm I had always thought it. (The following is the New King James Version, except where I made it gender inclusive and substituted God for He.)

1 Blessed are the undefiled in the way
3 They walk in God’s ways
5 Oh, that my ways were directed to keep Your statutes
9 How can a child, a young man or woman, cleanse his or her way?
14 I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies
15 I will contemplate Your ways
26 I have declared my ways, and You answered me
29 Remove from me the way of lying
30 I have chosen the way of truth
32 I will run the course of Your commandments
33 Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes
37 Revive me in Your way
59 I thought about my ways
101 I have restrained my feet from every evil way
104 Therefore I hate every false way
128 I hate every false way
168 For all my ways are before you

If you substitute journey or road for way/ways above, the psalm reveals itself to be speaking about the movement, the direction of our lives. There are several roads:  God’s, mine, evil, falseness. God has ways, as do I. I journey toward God or toward evil and falseness. I can talk with God about my journey, asking God for instruction, for signposts, asking God to make me good and true, to help me do good and tell the truth, thinking again and again about how God is directing my journey.  This helps me, because suddenly I see the practicality of this psalm.

We can see in Isaiah the prophet another witness to the movement inherent in the word way. “Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, "This is the way, walk in it," Whenever you turn to the right hand Or whenever you turn to the left (Isaiah 30:21). This promise that God’s Holy Spirit will help us take the next steps fits in perfectly with the dynamic nature of our journey. 

Jesus refers to both the law and the ways of living or perishing that are always in front of us.  He says, "Therefore, whatever you want others to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.  Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:12-14). I have often heard this used to warn young people away from popular culture, or to justify an exclusive vision of Christianity.  However, the immediate context suggests a different application. Anyone who thinks that the Golden Rule is easy to do and “not enough” to qualify for the way which leads to life hasn’t tried it very often, especially on people one dislikes.

Similarly stringent are the words Jesus spoke about making things right:  “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way together, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:23-26). I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating.  George MacDonald wrote in his sermon “The Last Farthing” (Unspoken Sermons):  “I think I do know what is meant by 'agree on the way,' and 'the uttermost farthing.' The parable is an appeal to the common sense of those that hear it, in regard to every affair of righteousness. Arrange what claim lies against you; compulsion waits behind it. Do at once what you must do one day. As there is no escape from payment, escape at least the prison that will enforce it. Do not drive Justice to extremities. Duty is imperative; it must be done. It is useless to think to escape the eternal law of things; yield of yourself, nor compel God to compel you.”

Again, anyone who thinks it easy to reconcile with a brother or sister or friend turned opponent has not tried it. It takes humility and graciousness, the willingness to share blame, and the willingness to give and accept forgiveness, the willing to change one’s mind with regard to those who oppose us.  These are hard disciplines. Yet Jesus says that our journey will include reconciliation, so do it now rather than later.

And finally, the best of all, Jesus himself is our way, our truth, our life.  "Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know. … I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know and have seen the Father" (John 14:1-7). Jesus absolutely and accurately represents our Father, the ideal Father no human can be and no human has had except for God. Getting to know Jesus is the way to God, the journey toward God, the truth about God, the true God, the vitality to move toward God, and the fullness of life within God. Through paying attention to Jesus as depicted in the Gospels and as our teacher present with us now through the Holy Spirit, we know our destination and how to move toward it.

To read Jesus back into Psalm 119 helps us see that the journey toward God is made possible by listening to what God says and obeying and by staying open and honest with God. Jesus tells us, “Walk this way.”