More on Mercy

181 Olive Oil Pouring Illustrations & Clip Art - iStock
Istockphoto

#8 of a Series on Psalm 50

I think we all have an idea about what mercy is – especially when we need it!  So the person sentenced to prison or even death ‘begs for mercy’.  An intervention is needed or else something disastrous will happen.  We contrast mercy as leniency to justice as strict adherence to the law.  If there is no mercy, then the lawyer has to contort the law to mean something merciful to get us off the hook.  The plethora of TV shows like ‘Law and Order’ explore every facet of this.

The Oil of God’s Mercy

The Bible has a deep and intricate view of God and His mercy. The word used in the Greek scriptures for mercy is ‘eleos (Ἔλεος) – which means oil.  So when we say, ‘Lord have mercy’, we’re saying, ‘Lord pour out your oil upon us.’  A brief review of a few of the scriptures and the practices of the early Church helps us appreciate this all the better.

Let’s begin with two stories of the mercy of God, as told in the Old Testament.

Justice or Mercy – Which will it Be?  (Exodus 32)

The dramatic story of the reception of the Ten Commandments shows the emergence of God’s mercy even at the very moment that the Law is given!  Even as Moses receives the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone, he is made aware by the Lord that the Israelites are concerned that he is delayed and are not satisfied with the LORD and prefer to make their own idol, in the form of a golden calf. Even Aaron demonstrates moral weakness at this failure moment of moral failure. Moses returns to the camp and finds this betrayal of the Lord, and of him, and casts down the Tablets in righteous anger.  The nation would be punished, but not utterly destroyed as Moses himself, in the spirit of sacrificial love for his people would pray that the Lord relent.  And so the mercy of God was extended and the entire nation not destroyed, although the Lord did punish the people with a plague.  Even Aaron, despite the seriousness of his sin, was spared.  God’s mercy.

Another example of God extending his mercy to those who repent is found in the Book of Jonah.  While the narrative focuses on Jonah’s trials and shortcomings, as a prophet he is sent to warn Ninevah to repent of their sins.  Ninevah does repent, a fast is called for by the rulers of the land, and God bestows his mercy upon them.  And in the process the prophet learns how the God of mercy relents even when the prophet believed that strict justice was in order.

Notably, both stories contain certain common elements:

  • The grace and blessing of God is revealed. (in the Law, in the person of the prophet)
  • The sin of the people drives the narrative – it cannot be ignored.
  • The prophet is called to give witness to God’s mercy and the justice.
  • For those who hearken – mercy is offered, but those who persist in their sins will perish 

God’s Mercy – Anointing of Kings with Oil

Those chosen as King of Israel were anointed symbolically by the pouring of oil over their head. This gesture of pouring or anointing was one both of identification (this is the King!), but also God’s visitation.  The King could not anoint himself – rather if the Kingship was to be godly he had to be anointed by God – hence the prophets were the ones called upon for this sacred duty. Saul’s anointing by the Prophet Samuel is an amazing story of the grace of God poured out upon a man, though unworthy, to carry out a specific mission on behalf of God for His people.  In a similar way, David was anointed King by Samuel.

The term ‘Anointed One’ eventually came to mean a man whom God had chosen as His ultimate leader and victor, set over His people as ruler but also servant.  This term, translated as ‘Messiah’ (Hebrew) or ‘Christ’ (Greek) as The Anointed One – became the title of the long-awaited Savior of God’s people, Who we have come to identify as Jesus, the Christ. 

New Testament Anointing

In the life and ministry of Jesus we see several anointing episodes. In the very beginning, one of the Magi present a gift of a special oil called myrrh, which would be a symbol not only of the Royal Kingship of Jesus, but in anticipation of His death and burial, when the myrrh and aloes were to be used to anoint His Body.  This theme is repeated when Jesus was anointed by Mary Magdalene, and by Mary of Bethany.  These anointings were acts of spontaneous love and mercy by these woman – and roundly criticized by some of the apostles, especially Judas Iscariat who thought it better not to ‘waste’ this oil.  But Jesus rebuked Judas, and used the occasion to reveal that the Kingdom which He came to establish is about this very gesture – an outpouring of mercy from the heart. The Death of Jesus would be the occasion of the Outpouring of God’s mercy upon the world. And Jesus prophetically spoke of His death and this anointing as a preparation of His Body for burial.

Another powerful image from the New Testament was that used to describe the ‘spiritual athletes’ in the ‘arena’.  Now these were allusions to the Greco-Roman games held in public arenas where the athletes, before competing, were rubbed down with oil. This oil brought vigor and strength, and was no small aid in helping him escape from the clutches of the enemy in the wrestling match![i]

The Anointing of God’s People

The image of ‘anointing’ is very much embedded in the prophetic title of Jesus – the One who is the Christ – the Anointed One – who also brings anointing to His people as well.  In Christianity, this action of a ceremonial, liturgical anointing was powerfully symbolic as joining us to the Anointing of Christ.  When a person was preparing for Baptism, he was anointed (oil of the catechumens) to give him spiritual strength to fight the enemy, the Devil. [ii]   A second Anointing at Baptism, using the special oil known as Chrism, signifies and imparts the seal of the Holy Spirit received by a person within – effectively making all who have been baptized into Christ, ‘christs’ themselves, in the image of The Christ. The Holy Spirit brings a special dynamic grace to our souls, including our healing and strengthening for ministry and service.

The Church imparts not only the sacramental anointing at Chrismation, but also the special anointing for healing in fulfillment of the early Church practice as revealed by the holy Apostle James, who taught,


“Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.”   James 5:14f

This is the anointing for healing and strengthening of the Christian not only in his daily life and spiritual battle, but also at special times when in need of special healing. Note as well the linking of the oil (mercy) to forgiveness of sins.  The ‘pouring of oil’ as described in the Parable of the Good Samaritan becomes a sign not only of physical healing but also strengthening, encouragement and love.  While the Orthodox (sacramental) Mystery ofAnointing  service is done for people with special needs (including those near death), as a Church we celebrate the sacramental (Mystery) Anointing on Wednesday of Holy Week, where we encounter all of these themes of Christ’s victory and anointing, struggle against sin, strengthening for the days ahead (Great Friday) and healing of soul and body.[iii]


The Church’s understanding of the eleos of Psalm 50 is  – ‘Lord, I will reveal my heart  to you which is wounded and sinful.  Pour the oil of your mercy upon me.– heal me.’  The anointing of God through his mercy brings healing of our spiritual sins and secondary psychological wounds from them as well.

So in seeking mercy, we’re really seeking the God of love who desires not our death (in sin) but that we repent and love. His forgiveness is poured out in abundance upon those who repent – this is the heart of Psalm 50.+


[i] God in His mercy has permitted a special oil to flow miraculously from the tombs of martyrs, and this oil becomes a source of healing for those who come to the shrine and receive it, through the intercession of the martyr. There are other examples of oil from the ‘weeping icons’ that are also miraculous beyond explanation and bring spiritual and bodily healing to people.

[ii] The Fathers of the Church frequently used this image when describing the value of the spiritual anointing in our wrestling against our Enemy – the Devil.  So anointed and protected by grace we will be strong and victorious and He will not be able to ‘handle’ us in the battle for our lives.

[iii] Among the other anointings routinely carried out by the Church are the ones that take place at the feasts which have the vigils and the Litiya where we pray extensive prayers for God’s people and the world, for God’s mercy in their need. Traditionally at death, the body of the deceased Christian is anointed again.  It was made holy and remains holy.

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe WordPress.com Blog

Are you new to blogging, and do you want step-by-step guidance on how to publish and grow your blog? Learn more about our new Blogging for Beginners course and get 50% off through December 10th.

WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

Psalm 50: It’s All About God’s Mercy

#7 of a Series on Psalm 50

The Prodigal Son (Rembrandt) Wikipedia

              

Well we’ve just scratched the surface of Psalm 50 and Great Lent is half over!  There will be other times to fill in the important backstory and context of the Psalm not only from its biblical context but our experience of it.

So reviewing the first verse of the psalm we hear,

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.

Psalm 50 is about mercy, God’s abundant mercy offered to all.  In the world today we have a sense of this in what I call ‘Global’ mercy – and the awareness that we should ourselves show mercy to people in need as a duty, and now especially it’s popular to be extra kind to animals!  In Orthodoxy we have organizations that raise our awareness of the needs of others, like IOCC, FOCUS or OCMC.  The secular world has a global outlook in bringing global health care, community development, emergency relief, and an umbrella of ‘caring’ organizations and NGOs (non-government organizations) to take care of everything and everybody.  Of course, they don’t and they can’t.

Solving the problems of others is all well and good.  And through a donation or something it’s possible to participate in this ‘global’ mercy work.  But, the process of mercy must begin with you and me. 

Cares Around Me

As a priest – I find myself often concerned about the issues and struggles of others.  Parents share their concern about their children. Health care workers wonder about the pandemic.  People watch the elderly grow older and face increasing struggles with health, living standards and even the basics of life.  And we know a little and perhaps feel the needs of the hidden populations like the homeless, the mentally ill, prisoners and others who are marginalized in our culture and community.

There’s a danger though – that an exterior mental focus blinds us to our inner personal need.  The whole focus of Great Lent is to shatter this illusion and to come to the realization that I am really in desperate need of God’s mercy.  Like David.

So the question is, who am I – and how do I need God’s mercy?  This is a very personal and intimate question for each person.  No one shares the same wounds and sins of their lives.  No one even knows that you think a certain way – and maybe behave because of it – because of the emotional and psychological wounds of your life decades ago as a child or youth. They may not know of your hidden practices, addictions or other passions.   If you are like me, you may have experienced that quizzical look on someone’s face when you actually start to speak about such things, and their immediate desire is to change the subject.  Maybe because it hits too close to home for them too. So for many of us, we tend to live alone in self-isolation carrying in silence all of our problems, wounds and sins, but desperately needing mercy, from somewhere.

An Act of Faith

To cry out, “Have mercy on me O God”– is an act of faith.  It is an act that is often made standing on very wobbly ground. Almost immediately on saying these words, we are challenged.  Do I have (any) real faith

I recall perhaps the most terrifying moment for me was one dark night when I was in college, and very sick, and I cried out to God. And realized how little faith I had. When there was seemingly no response.

So I find the Gospel we read on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent very unsettling – when the man rushes up to Jesus, seeking help for his demon-possessed little boy, which causes Jesus to cry out not, ‘Be healed’, but ‘O unbelieving generation”, a title which included this man, and the apostles (not to mention the scribes persent) who could not cast out the demon.  The man is forced to cry in a paradox, “I do believe, help my unbelief.”  Mk. 9:17ff

As a Christian and perhaps especially as a priest, sometimes it’s easy to speak words of ‘faith’ to other people going through their trials.  But when we have to confront our own weaknesses, failings and ultimately our unbelief, as for this man, it is crushing. Words of faith come hard.

Do I believe that there is a compassionate and loving God who can help me?   If I call out, “O God” will I be heard?  

This is the heart of the matter for so many people in our world today – who have never been taught at an early age to ‘call upon the Name of the Lord” (Rom.10:13), but rather that there is some other ‘solution’ to our problem, be it government, science, medicine, money or some self-chosen path like Eastern religion or ‘meditation’ that still relies on me, and not Him.

What Does it Take?

So in simple terms, what does it take to pray the first verse of this psalm in truth?  A few things:   

                – Honest  Recognition of our need – This happens when our pride and self-sufficiency is crushed. Sickness, weakness, opposition in the world (i.e. imprisonment), will do that for us.

                – A perspective that God is near to us – He can and will hear.  This is the loving and personal God, who Christians learn to call upon as Father, who ‘unfortunately’ is in ‘heaven’ so He is hard to see, but can still be present.  Part of our spiritual heritage in America is ‘deistic’.  Deists are people who believe in God all right – but their God is very distant, and unengaged in any aspect of human life.  I suspect many agnostics are actually  deists believing in a great power of some sort perhaps – but it really doesn’t matter in real life. He is nowhere to be found.

                – God’s love for me  – God is my Helper, for sure.  But to say ‘God loves us’ is to go much further.  The Helper God is one who will be our ‘Go To’ god when we need help.  Like the student cramming for an exam the night before and needing an A to graduate.  But once deliverance comes, that god is cast aside as unnecessary, until of course he (it) is needed again. The breakthrough moments of life are often those where our limiting view of the god we believe in is exploded by the Real God who gives us a glimpse of what His love is all about.

I would say that if any of these elements is missing, we will come up short and our prayer, “Have mercy on me O God” will not be fruitful.

God’s mercy pours forth

Now when we are able to say these words with personal meaning, we experience a ‘bottoming” upon which a real (spiritual) life can be built.  This is like the Prodigal Son (Lk. 11:15ff) who ‘hit bottom’ when he was desperately hungry and found himself literally among the swine of the field and still unable to find relief.  In turning back, he found restoration.  Mercy flowed from His Father, as it does from our Heavenly Father when we seek Him in this way.  The bottoming out becomes a change of heart, and movement in a new life direction, to a place where we can actually receive the Father’s love and embrace. This restoration leads to a compassion to others who are in similar situations – suffering, alone, desperate and in need of forgiveness and healing.  And to know the Father.

The Church and Mercy

If we experience mercy in this way, then we can understand why the Church prays ‘Lord have mercy’ so much!.  We are the people who have received God’s mercy.  God’s mercy is available to all – but not all receive it.  We have been touched by the compassion and forgiveness of God as poured out as mercy upon us – through the Paschal Mystery – the Suffering, Cross, Death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus.  We know what mercy is because we’ve tasted it – and ‘drunk from the chalice’ of God’s mercy.[i]

This compels us to do the work of the Church[ii] – in prayer, ‘Lord have mercy’.   Having received mercy, and moved in the heart by Christ’s love for ‘mankind’[iii], the Church is sensitized to the way of mercy.  This is how the Church is the ‘priesthood of believers[iv]’ (1Pt 2:5) because we then long to bring mercy to the world – personally first, and then as a body.  In our litany prayers, compassion drives us to lift up the people in need in our personal world (friends, family, co-workers, etc.) as well as all in need to God, trusting in His mercy for them – all in the context of our communal, liturgical intercessory prayer.  

The words, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy;” are heard every week at the beginning of the Litany after the Gospel. God’s mercy is Great! We approach the throne of God in grace and trust in His mercy, as we lift up all the subsequent petitions – for the people of God, our spiritual fathers, our civil authorities, the sick and suffering, those who lie asleep in the Lord, all who bring offerings, etc. as the deacon leads the prayer petitions for these things in the subsequent petitions.  The response of the faithful, “Lord have mercy “– 3 times, is reiterative, and ‘rivets’ our personal intention to the prayer of the entire church.[v]

This intercessory prayer makes us all priests – for this is what priests do, serve as intercessors for others and our world, lifting them and their needs to the God of all mercy.[vi]  Our ‘global’ intercession and ministry is founded in a personal faith in God’s mercy.

Lent is the Season of God’s Mercy

Perhaps you can see how Psalm 50 brings us to so much potential richness in the Faith, discovering His mercy for me and us that we can return to him (like the Prodigal Son) as a slave, but more so in receiving His mercy, forgiveness and restoration, and ultimately discovering the greatest gift –  that He is Father.


[i] I’m convinced that the misunderstanding and misapplication of the metaphorical juridical language of some biblical texts by St. Paul, describing the state of man and the judgment of God and ‘justification’, has driven many Protestant sects to miss this essential grounding of Christian faith in the mercy of God, which is seminal to how the Orthodox Church experiences grace and salvation, as witnessed in the apostolic tradition in the Scriptures and Tradition.  Their forebears in Roman Catholicism at the time may have been in part responsible because of the construct of their faith at the time, so emphasizing personal salvation as a juridical process through personal works, that there was no need for a merciful God.  He could be appeased by what we do. People could effectively save themselves just by racking up enough positive points to balance out the negative ones on the scales of divine justice.  In many of these juridical constructs, where a God from a distance pronounces a judgment of Jesus and somehow forgives the world of its sin, is quite different from how God saves us in fact – intimately, through His mercy – into whose very Body we are baptized.

[ii] The ‘work of the Church’ is called ‘leitourgia’ in Greek, or ‘liturgy’.  So can it be said that those who have no interest in the Church’s liturgy perhaps don’t understand this work or their role in it, or maybe haven’t experienced the mercy of God in this way, or have forgotten?  Great Lent is here to remind us who we are who we are and what we are to be doing.

[iii] Orthodoxy frequently uses the title for Christ, ‘Philanthropos’, in Greek meaning the ‘Lover of Humankind’

[iv] For the Orthodox, this term can be used but is not understood in quite the same way as Luther and later Protestantism.

[v] Perhaps this raises a big issue which cannot be addressed here but needs to be addressed somewhere.  Is this ‘Lord, have mercy’ response really the participatory response of all of the people in the church?  Or is it just a response sung by a chanter or a handful of participants in a choir – but not enjoined by all or even a majority of those present, who are justpassive observers. Participatory singing by all goes a long way to addressing this in a basic way, but there are other issues – for liturgists and spiritual fathers to resolve.

[vi] In Catholicism, I find that the Divine Mercy devotion of recent years has been something of a remedy to the juridical template of the past.  It bears many of the elements of the prayers of the ancient Church – trust in God, seeking forgiveness, mercy and healing for self and for mankind.

Psalm 50: Let’s Focus on Me Shall We?

                                           

#6 of a Series on Psalm 50

file – pinterst

Well, it would seem we’re not making a whole lot of progress working through the verses of Psalm 50 and unfortunately we won’t seemingly get very much further today – our focus for today is ‘Me’!

Our phrase for reflection is, ‘Have mercy on me O Lord” and have spent a little time on “Lord, have mercy”, we’ll go to the second half of the phrases – Have mercy on Me

So What about Me?  It’s all about Me

The Orthodox Faith exists in two modes – and they can run in parallel tracks.  The first is familiar – it’s the Church of our experience with all of her adornments, church buildings, prayer forms, community activities, icons, incense, music and art, etc.  Like the proverbial smorgasbord, we can show up and just engage with it all, or some of it, on a Sunday morning.  Lent and Holy Week provide special experiences and it all reaches a summit of experience in Pascha. And as in a good show, it’s ends, we go home, go back to ‘normal’ and just engage in it all when we choose to.  In this case, the best show wins – with the ‘best’ icons, music, etc. is where we gravitate.

The second and parallel track of the Orthodox Faith is very different.  While the external things may impact it, they’re secondary to another internal question to the believer – ‘How is my soul responding to all of this?’  Where is God in all of this (if anywhere)?   When we experience joy from a service (above) what happens in my soul?  Am I more drawn to pray, do I  love others, or seek a spiritual way to bring me more of the spiritual life?  Is a personal contact with the Divine possible? Desirable?   If so, what is it like?  

Religions try to pull the two tracks into one and Orthodoxy is no different.   Some people focus on their personal faith path and ignore the first mode. And it’s quite possible for a person to experience the first mode, but not the latter.

David was not such a person.  The scriptures show us David’s ‘engagement’ with God was quite personal – his ‘prayers’ were not just religious utterances, but personal expressions to God of what he thought and believed about life, himself, others from the depths of his being.  It was a way of life for him, with a vision of a majestic, and yet loving and intimate God.  Likewise, God did His part in moving mysteriously in David’s life, allowing for this way of communication through prayer and psalms, and wondrous experiences like his call to action in faith in defeating the monstrous Goliath and his anointing as the King of God’s people on earth. So, for David, the faith was much about him, in a good way.  How the God of creation brought this about was viewed as a blessing, and being chosen and beloved by the Lord.

And so, when it came to his epic failure – his sin with Bathsheba and murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, the effect was profoundly personal – it tore at his heart apart.  Now despite this inner wrenching pain we see his ‘evasive maneuvers’ trying to deflect his personal sensitivity, but his explanations about bringing home Uriah  to be with his wife (and hide the possibility of pregnancy) and the ‘justification’ for sending him to the front to die and was  that ‘bad things happen’ (2Sam 11).  He was lying to himself of course – deflecting externally the pain of conscience that was tearing him up.  But when the Lord, Who loved him, sent Nathan the prophet to cut through his denials, David showed that his extraordinary relationship with God was authentic, proven by the river of tears of sorrow in his eyes and heart.

For David, his words, “Have mercy on me” are extremely personal – begging for God’s mercy on him.  No time to worry about anyone else – family, friends, nation, etc.  When your gasping for air going under for the third time it’s about you.  And in this case, it was the burden of his sin with Bathsheba was a great weight pushing him down.  His is a cry for HELP!  He saw his life flash before his eyes – not his physical life – but his eternity of life which was tied with his relationship with God. 

Now when you’re drowning in an ocean of darkness like that, you just don’t know if you’ll be heard or anyone will come.  But David had the sense that because he had known God so intimately, that the God of the universe would indeed hear him. What he would do was another matter.  It’s kinda’ like the Prodigal Son who realizes that his only hope lies in his father’s house and so he directs his will in that direction, the right direction.  Like the Prodigal Son, his penitential cry is desperate, but it’s also personal.  He believes that somehow, his Father (God) will be there. He’s prepared for the worst and some sort of punishment but that doesn’t matter – he has to survive. 

The bible says and the Fathers affirm, “The wages of sin is death.”(Rom. 6:23)   For David, his need to confess his sin was life and death. Death was at the door and his only way to avoid it was to call out to God to receive deliverance from his personal sin.  This again is not some vague ‘sinfulness’ or personal failure – but a crushing realization of his spiritual plight.

This personal dimension of faith is a wonderful gift of God.  For the person who does not acknowledge the presence of God or any moral authority, there is only Me/I and no one to need to give an account for.  But ironically, we are never alone or solely self-centered, because by placing the human conscience within us that somehow, if we are human in the least, there is a voice that inspires us to goodness, caring and godliness. My “I” (ego) cannot shake my conscience though we’re good at dodging it sometimes for what seems like a lifetime.  But as I heard from a woman last weekend, she was only just recently started  coming to church because she had a life-altering near-death experience in a car crash.  While each of us is unique, you and I are very similar in this way.  When the chips are down, we’re going to look up.

So when David cries, “Have mercy on me, God”.  He is saying this For Real –  from the depth of his heart, not as a religious observer.  That’s when real penance happens, and conversion happens.  When Christ says, ‘Repent’to you and me – this is what he means.  

Psalm 50: Sorry, But Love Means Always Having to Say I’m Sorry

                                                            

Those of us who lived in the 1970s might remember the movie, Love Story, which had not only a rather lovely music score, but also a catchphrase with these words, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The phrase appears a couple of times in the movie and the book and was eventually made into a song.  So embedded in our culture, it became one of those great soundbites catchphrases that sounds so, well, loving and intimate. 

Alas, it’s not really true.

People who love must say, ‘I’m sorry’ and say it again and again.  Love relationships, like marriage, require it to clear the air in the relationship when one caused an offense against her or his beloved. It first is an acknowledgement that something ‘happened’, and my responsibility for it happening, and that it was offensive, and that I care about how you feel about it and also feel badly because of it, and how it has effected you.  Now this is a human example in a sort of generic form, but it applies in other human relationships and arguably in our relationship with God although any projection of human thoughts or behavior or feelings isn’t sound. 

It might also be said that love begins when we say “I’m sorry” or maybe more precisely, when I care so much for how my sinful thoughts and actions influence our relationship in a destructive way. 

Why is “I’m sorry” so Difficult?

There are many reasons why it’s hard to get to ‘I’m sorry.’  You probably know them all. To get to “I’m sorry.” there requires self-awareness, humility and an acknowledgment of my inadequacies and spiritual brokenness. If we lack any of these, we will be unable to (really) say “I’m sorry.”  Well maybe we can say it, but meaning it is a lot harder. 

Self-awareness is a sign of human maturity.  Children see the world as an extension of themselves. Maturing psychologically and emotionally means recognizing the (incredible) distinctiveness of other persons. They are not me or even like me, sometimes not at all.  Our inner thinking often says, “Of course they think that way or feel that or believe that.” But projecting those thoughts, emotions or beliefs on others blocks all relationship.  Similarly, sometimes people (even long married couples) will think – ‘well of course he forgives me’ or some similar thought, simply projecting one’s own thoughts or desires. Seeing this in someone today we usually label them as ‘clueless.’

Humility means humbly seeing the other in this distinctive way and then having enough self awareness that I not only can sin and offend God and others, but do.  In regard to our relationship with God, this denial is mitigated if we can honestly accepted the Ten Commandments and compare our behaviors (and thoughts) against that external standard. Self-delusion takes place when the only standard for me is myself.[i]  Living in denial means surround ourselves in this bubble of self-protection. 

But this is a spiritual reality of the soul as well.  There are certain diseases (even low level ones) that pump toxins into the bloodstream and a person gets weak, and sometimes utterly delusional.  They are wobbly psychologically and emotionally, and spiritually. The disease comes from the sinful passions that overwhelm the soul’s ‘balance’.

This is where David was, before the prophet Nathan showed up.

Here is a rather lengthy comment on this by St. John Chrysostom,

And the prophet was found in adultery, the pearl in the mud. However, he did not yet understand that he had sinned; the passion ravaged him to such a great extent. Because, when the charioteer gets drunk, the chariot moves in an irregular, disorderly manner. What the charioteer is to the chariot, the soul is to the body. If the soul becomes darkened, the body rolls in the mud. As long as the charioteer stands firm, the chariot drives smoothly. However, when he becomes exhausted and is unable to hold the reins firmly, you see this very chariot in terrible danger. The exact same thing happens to man. As long as the soul is sober and vigilant, this very body remains in purity. However, when the soul is darkened, this very body rolls in mud and in lusts. Therefore, what did David do? He committed adultery; yet neither was he aware nor was he censured by anyone. This occurred in his most venerable years, so you may learn that, if you are indolent, not even old age benefits you, nor, if you are earnest, can youthful years seriously harm you. Behavior does not depend on age but on the direction of the will. Although David was twelve years old, he was a judge; his predecessors, however, who were old in years, committed adultery; and neither did old age benefit them nor youth injure this one. So you may learn that the affairs of prudence rely upon the will and do not depend on age, just remember that David was found in his venerable years falling into adultery and committing murder; and he reached such a pathetic state that he was unaware that he had sinned, because his mind, which was the charioteer, was drunk from debauchery1

Here St. John likens this state of mind and heart as a ‘stupor’ like drunkenness.

Diagnosis?

If you want to know your state of mind and heart, just monitor your thoughts of defensiveness?  If we feel that way, like David, we’re usually hiding something we’re ashamed of – and that’s usually something sinful.  And defensiveness, strangely, often accompanies psychological denial.  In our deepest selves we know we are, or have done, wrong, but can’t accept the thought so we defend ourselves. Likewise we’ll attack others and often accuse them of the very thing we have done.

 Nathan was courageous.

The antidote to sin is repentance, and what is necessary to upright the ship is the strength of moral courage.  It takes courage to confront sin, even in others, and so much easier to just avoid the conflict.  St. John Chrysostom speaks further:

What did the king say? “I have sinned against the Lord.” He did not say, “Who are you who censures me? Who sent you to speak with such boldness? With what daring did you prevail?” He did not say anything of the sort; rather, he perceived the sin. And what did he say? “I have sinned against the Lord.” Therefore, what did Nathan say to him? “And the Lord remitted your sin.” You condemned yourself; I [God] remit your sentence. You confessed prudently; you annulled the sin. You appropriated a condemnatory decision against yourself; I repeal the sentence. Can you see that what is written in Scripture was fulfilled: “Be the first one to tell of your transgressions so you may be justified” [Isaiah 43:26]? How toilsome is it to be the first one to declare the sin?”2

David perceived his sin – and regained his senses, his equilibrium. 

We can never be unaware of our sin.  We have a conscience.   We will either

– Deny it

– Blame others for it                        – Dull its pain                     

– Or Confess the sin and accuse myself as a sinner

Only this path leads to health. Our sins are confessed so that they can be forgiven.  Unless they are confessed they remain unforgiven. 

Psalm 50 is all about coming to our senses (like the Prodigal Son) and then the Psalm gives us the perspective which leads us to be able to say, in all honesty and humility, ‘Lord, I am sorry.’  Remember that Judas recognized that he had ‘done wrong’ and effectively sinned, but did not have the courage or faith to come to Jesus and say, ‘I’m sorry!’ Can you imagine what would have happened if He had?  Peter too had offended Christ, be he did say, ‘I’m sorry.’

When we come to our senses and recognize our sins and responsibility for them, we have begun the journey of forgiveness and healing which is what Great Lent is about.  This opens us to the great expanse of God’s forgiveness.


Psalm 50:  Lord, Have Mercy

#4 of a Series of Reflections on Psalm 50 (51)

Lord have mercy!

We’ll hear those words today in all kinds of situations out of the mouths of believers and non-believers alike.  It’s often blurted out when someone is exasperated, or utterly shocked when something happens to them or surprises them.  It’s not always a statement about the Lord, or about mercy, at all.

David begins Psalm 50 with these same words, more or less – “Have mercy on me, O God!”

But for believers, these words are always to be at the center of our hearts. They are our spiritual starting line in the race of faith,  when we begin to understand who we are and how we need God in our lives. The sentence has two parts, ‘Lord’ and ‘have mercy’ so we’ll approach the first in this discussion.

The NAME of the Lord

Christian life starts with speaking the name of the  ‘Lord’.  How we address the Lord is really important!  When we blurt out ‘Lord have mercy’ in exasperation or even anger, the eternal Lord is usually far from our minds.  It’s usually the opposite scenario where we’re overwhelmed by the here and now.

But the Lord Almighty commanded that His Name not be spoken ‘in vain’ (Ex. 20:7) Judaism’s reverence for the name of the Lord was so total, it was a fearful thing just to utter it.  They would not even spell it as such[i], but use the letters YHWH to stand for Him and for His name, because in the Hebrew and Semitic way of thinking, one’s name signified the very essence of a person, his character, and even her life purpose.  So, from the naming of ‘Eve’ by Adam in Gen. 2, to the naming of the sons of the Patriarchs, etc and ‘Emmanuel’ in the Book of Isaiah, this sense of the importance and reverence of any name was serious business.  But to speak the name of the All-Holy and Unknowable God of All Creation was deemed beyond man’s capability, because of our utter unworthiness to even approach, let alone speak to the Divine.  This ‘fear of the Lord’ is called in the scriptures the ‘beginning of Wisdom.’ (Prov. 9:10)  God in His holiness, in this view, was utterly inaccessible and unapproachable.

Approach with the Fear of God

But for one who had a heart for the Lord, like David, he had come to know that he could approach God in all humility. As David begins this great psalm, he begins not with himself, but with the God who is the eternal Point of Reference of all that is and lives. This becomes, in this amazing moment of penance, David’s singular focus, to somehow dare to approach God in his sin!  This he could do because he had approached God many times before – in other times and circumstances not so bitter.  He could praise Him, thank Him as the psalms and scriptures attest, and ask for deliverance.  But now could he approach God to receive forgiveness?   It is a fearful thing to approach the Living God – let alone when we are clothed in sin! In fact, as we read in Genesis as well, our forefather Adam could not approach the Lord, but hid from him (physically, emotionally, spiritually). Faith then requires both humility and courage.

I suspect we may be comfortable chatting with God about our lives or lifting up concerns or the present or future state of things.  This dialogue of what could be called ‘prayer’ sets a grounding and framework for a relationship with God that is personal – not just words from some book, but impacting what is here and now for us.  But if you’re like me, God is probably wondering when I, in my prayers, will actually get around to what’s really going on in my life because the messy things like sin, rebellion, love for this world, hatred of others and other sinful thoughts and behaviors are not the stuff of a daily prayer chat.  Rather, we find ourselves naked and asking ourselves whether, like David, we dare approach God with such things – knowing that they are utterly unworthy of Him.

Jesus opened the door to us in this matter, not only giving us the command to repent, but offering us a way to come to repentance before God – as Father.  When Jesus prayed, He spoke to God as Father.  When the apostles asked Him, ‘How should we pray?’ He said, “When you pray, say, ‘Father…’” (Mt.5). 

Our Father

So now, for us, the eternal, unknowable and All Powerful God is actually ‘Father’ and we are to approach Him as such!  Now this is the good news and the bad news!

The good news of course is that God is indeed approachable to us,  just as we read in the first week of Great Lent from Genesis, ehrn He walked in the garden with Adam, and looked for Adam even after He had sinned.  He could have, in all righteousness, simply struck Adam down in His sin then and there and obliterated him from the Garden, the face of the earth, and the Cosmos in an instant.  Perfect love did not permit this despite how seemingly ‘just[ii]’ it would have been.

But a Father does not do that to his children.

Instead, as Jesus repeats in the story of the Prodigal Son, the Father patiently waits until the movements of life force the fallen son to come to his senses, and recognize the Truth for what it is – his rebellion in sin, his disregard for His Father, his squandering of the precious treasures entrusted to him, his chasing after this life pleasures, etc.  And the son only need make the first step in returning so that the Father can reconcile him and restore him again. 

The ‘Bad’ news is that, when we really recognize how we have sinned, it’s one thing to deal with them as past events, or ‘something to work on’.  But when we realize that we have offended God our Father Who loves us so!  It’s heartbreaking!  Or as the holy Fathers would say, it is heart softening.  (There will be more said about this a little later.)

David did not have the benefit of the Gospel of Jesus to give him the sense when he finally came to his senses that he could actually reach out to God.  This is at the crux of the story for each of us – when the chips are down can we, will we, and do we actually turn to God in a way that is not ‘in vain’ but in faith?  Those who do the former will only find exasperation amplified, even anger, as we read in the scriptures about people like Cain and Judas Iscariot.  When they sinned they had nowhere to go.  They were unable – in their critical moment – to turn to God as their Lord as David could, and I believe, ultimately, Adam could.  When we cannot turn to God in such a moment we are spiritually  lost.  The demons soon swarm in, and convince us that our anger at God is justified, and we can become utterly lost spiritually, like Cain and Judas.  So many people feel emotionally empty and defeated, because they too have only their own feelings confronting them and overwhelming them with their own self-defeating self-talk, leading to depression and even suicidal thoughts.  In such a terrible place we need to look beyond our selves – and cry out to that true God, who is Somewhere, to hear us.[iii]

The words of Jesus to the Apostolic Church after His Resurrection were, “Those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 19:13)  Is this not the Good News? We can call upon the name of the Lord, that it as spoken from our lips, can be heard and that we, like Adam and David can come out from our hiding and darkness to receive healing, purification and a restored relationship with God as Father? 

St. Marks’ Gospel speaks a parallel word from Jesus Himself,

“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.6 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

Here the Lord refers to the need to approach God in faith and receive Baptism (of repentance). But it goes further speaking another possibility – those who won’t repent and call upon the name of the Lord, won’t be saved.   They will find no salvation, because they distance themselves from the Lord and without Him there is No One who can save them.  They have not learned, nor been taught, to call upon the Name of the Lord. 

Now this points to another spiritual reality and responsibility.  If we have learned from our forebears to call upon the name of the Lord, so as to be saved from our sins, then it behooves us to teach others to call upon the name of the Lord.  This is the Church’s role[iv]  – no other religion or place on earth is in a place or position to bring salvation of Jesus and the awareness of the possibility of God as Father – it is the privilege of the Church to introduce the children of God to their Father.  The Church teaches us with the words of Jesus to come to our Father, that He might “forgive us our trespasses (offenses)” We can call upon our God directly, and as the introduction to the Our Father in the Divine Liturgy vividly says,

And make us worthy O Master, that we may dare call upon You, our Heavenly God, as Father, and to say…’Our Father…’”…

So here is this amazing irony, that the sinners recognize two things – first that they are utterly unworthy to approach God, yet by faith they are compelled inwardly to nonetheless with fear and faith so approach God as Father.”

This is the recipe for repentance and redemption, which comes not from any sense of ourselves that somehow we are worthy of anything good (as like David our sins reveal) but that nevertheless we can so approach God, as Lord and Father, and that He is one Who will deal with us with great mercy, as a Father always does.

David knew this, so his prayer of repentance could so begin.

The Not so Good News?

I mentioned above that being able to call God our Father also had it’s ‘down’ side?  What could that possibly be?  Well it’s a downer, only in so much that it makes it harder in some ways, to say ‘Father, I have sinned’ rather than Eternal God of the Cosmos I am a sinner.  When God is personal, even Father, the emotional sadness of penance has an even deeper reach in our heart.  This is the case with our sins when we realize the love of God in our hearts.  It’s why the saints were so profoundly penitential – because they realized how much our sins were an offense to our loving Father, even unbearably so.  Likewise when we realize the personal aspects of our personal sins – that the effect our loved ones deeply and intimately, makes our repentance so much harder – really.  I think this is one of the reasons why some people live in denial – simply because the thought of having so offended someone they love is unbearable.  How much more so for our All-loving Father.  But the Lord Himself gives us the grace to so approach Him – as the Father was known by the Prodigal Son as One who was full of forgiveness and could be approached.

So the not-so-good news is, of course, good news. Our hearts are capable of deep love, hence we are capable of deep repentance. +


[i] Of the several names for the Lord in Hebrew, Yahweh was used, essentially meaning ‘I am Who Am” 

[ii] The Old Testament notions of justice, and all human limited perceptions of justice pale in comparison to the justice of God. It is beyond us and there is no contradiction between His justice and mercy.

[iii] The Orthodox Church sings Psalm 140 daily at vespers, beginning with these words, “Lord, I have cried to you hear me, He me O Lord.” These words ‘inhaled’ daily help us to instinctively turn to the Lord in our need.

[iv] To fulfill His command in Mk. 16 and as St. Paul was doing by example to the Roman Church in Rom 10 above.

On Psalm 50 (#3) – The Sins of Our Fathers – the Holy Prophet David

Holy Prophet David – Iconsart

Before going verse by verse through Psalm 50, it’s important to look at the Psalm as it is presented to us even in the Psalter itself and the scriptures.  David is recognized as the author[i] of the Psalms, and as such these psalms are often a quite intimate reflection of his inner thinking, his very heart, as he reaches out to the God Whom he loves.  The psalms reflect the circumstances of his life and his turning of the circumstances of his life over to God. For example, in the introductory words preceding the psalm texts we get a hint of what is to come, such as in Psalm 17,

By the child of the Lord, David, what things he spoke to the Lord even the words of this ode, in the day the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. “  (OSB)

So far so good. So the psalms reflect the glorious triumphs of David, his wondrous praise of the living God, Who so loved Him and delivered him from his enemies.  Then we hear this

David – and his Sins

In the introduction to Psalm 50, we read:

“When Nathan the prophet came to him, at the time he went into Bathsheba.”

Riveting isn’t it? X-rated. A dagger to the fraud of David’s ‘spirituality’.  David was a sinner, and a hideous one. 

The event alluded to the terrible double sin of David that we read in 2Kingdoms[ii] 11. It is the story of the fall of David from the sins of lust, to adultery, to murder.  Having cast his gaze upon Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite he lusted  for her, he sent for her and slept with her. Then, probably fearing the possibility of pregnancy, he brought her husband back from the battle to lay with his wife so that if she had a child it was presumed by him. But Uriah, in humble righteousness, would not allow himself this pleasure, given the circumstances of his life as a soldier and the state of the people of Israel. David tried again to get Uriah to go to his wife, by getting him drunk, but he would not. Then David, in a fury, sent Uriah to the front with specific instruction that he should be sent to the fiercest battle, where he would die.  And so it was – Uriah was killed and David effectively removed his male ‘competitor’ for Bathsheba, her rightful husband, Uriah and took her as his wife. 

Chapter 11 verse 27 is as riveting as it is explicit, “But what David did was evil in the eyes of the Lord.”

We can see that David was losing ground rapidly to his sins – and being overwhelmed by them. They were multiplying one on another. From lust to adultery, to fear of the truth, to lying, to manipulation, to drunkenness, to anger, to conspiracy, to murder, to cover-up and justification, and blindness to more lust, etc.[iii]

 But because God loved David he was not about to let David remain in his sin.  He sent the prophet Nathan to speak His words directly to him in the form of a parable describing a cruel injustice. And when David heard the words, “You are the man.” as the unjust ruler represented in the parable, the scales fell  from David’s eyes, and he was crushed with the truth of what he had been running from – how sin had first penetrated his thoughts, his heart and his behavior leading to adultery and murder, and so much more.  This was an epic moral failure, and fall in his life.

Can you bear the Truth?

Nathan the prophet speaks the Truth to David and it saves him.  Truth cut through his fog of denial.  The truth was about not only what David had done – but all that he had thought, said, felt and plotted in his heart.  His anger toward Uriah in Uriah’s extraordinary goodness and witness to his calling as a warrior for the Israelites. But the truth was also that despite David’s sin, God still loved Him and desired to forgive him. It would be required of David to acknowledge the Truth and his sin so as to receive The Lord’s mercy and forgiveness.

God loves us too; He wills that we not remain in sin.  Instead, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, who is the Word (Gr. Logos)to speak the truth to us about our sins and its effects on our lives. The words of Jesus become the eternal witness of Truth to the falsehoods and half-truths of sins. Christ commands with these words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Mk. 1)  He sends other people to us to speak His Word – like Nathan – those who bear His Word in their own lives – parents, brothers/sisters, believers in the Church, etc. who are led to say things to help us recognize our sin – sometimes directly, other times mysteriously or in a parable of life. This is the path to peace and inner freedom in the Truth. 

Jesus warned the Pharisees again and again about their blindness to their own sin, especially pride.  “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”  (Jn. 9:41)  The whole purpose and mission of Christ on earth and His Church is simply to lead people to acknowledge their sins, that they might repent, be forgiven, and be saved from them.  When sin is committed repeatedly, it becomes a lifestyle as in addiction, the one who cannot, or refuses to acknowledge the woeful state of her life will remain in that state.  A prophetic Word is needed to bring the truth, clarity, repentance and a change of life. 

The Forgiveness of Christ through the Church

This is why receiving Sacrament of Penance (Confession) is so important in the Church – so much that every Orthodox Christian is directed to confess their sins during the Lenten season as a preparation for Pascha. The ministry of priests is explicitly that of Jesus, in the same manner which He empowered His apostles to do, ‘Forgive sins’. (John 20:21f)   In fact, the prayer of forgiveness the priest pronounces is not from him, but from God, for the prayer of absolution makes reference to the forgiveness of David through a reference to the words of the prophet Nathan.[iv] The Word is the One who forgives sins.

So, we Christians, who like David love and desire God, must swiftly seek forgiveness of sins when we fall into them, lest we, like David, begin to lose all consciousness of the truth, our lives spin out of control and we’re overwhelmed by the darkness of sin.  If it could happen to David, who was a ‘man after the Lord’s heart’ it can, and will happen to us.

With that as a little background, perhaps it’s worthwhile to ponder  a few questions:

  • Honestly, what are the real sins have I committed that are offensive to God and destructive of my relationship with Him?
  • Have I gone from sin-to-sin in my own thinking, feeling, actions and willfulness?
  • How is the Word of God speaking to me, calling me to repentance?  Who has the Lord sent as the ‘Nathan’ of my life?

May we heed His Word Who speaks the truth in our hearts, to acknowledge and confess our personal sins in humility as David did.  During this Great Lent let us seek forgiveness and freedom from their bondage.  May the most intimate and sorrowful words of David become our words as we reach out to God for forgiveness!


[i] Biblical scholarship today tends to emphasize that authorship of biblical writings is a complex subject beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice it to say that the Church’s perspective on this has the person of the David clearly at the center of these thoughts and feelings expressed, which is reflected throughout Orthodoxy in her liturgical texts and patristic writings.

[ii] This is called the Second Book of Samuel in the western Church use.

[iii] Perhaps at another time we will be able to explore how sin moves more and more freely the more we sin

[iv] I don’t know if this is true for other priests or not, but part of my prayer in hearing Confessions was that  the words that I would speak to the penitent at Confession would  only be the words of Christ’s forgiveness, but also the prophetic words of the Spirit that could somehow directly open the person’s life to His work through spiritual insight and spiritual therapy through actions.  Only penitents could tell you whether or how that prayer was answered.

How do we use Psalm 50 as Orthodox Christians?

#2 in a Series of Reflections on Psalm 50 during Great Lent

For those of us who are Orthodox Christians, Psalm 50 is not unknown to us.  How do we know it?  Because it’s everywhere!

The Church places an emphasis on certain prayers by prescribing that we pray them frequently. Examples include of course, the ‘Our Father’, ‘The Prayer to the Holy Trinity’ (Trisagion -Holy God, Holy Mighty…etc.) and hymns to Mary such as the hymn ‘It is right in truth to glorify You, the Birthgiver of God…‘  These repetitions are not just the ‘multiplying of words’ that Jesus warned about, but a way of increasing a kind of spiritual clarity and intensity by their repetition.  So when I say that Psalm 50 is like that, here are a few examples of places in our common Orthodox prayers where Psalm 50 shows up:

Morning Prayers – The traditional longer forms of the Morning Prayers include Psalm 50 as a way of ‘level-setting’ our day in seeking God’s mercy and avoiding sin.

Formal Liturgical Services – It is found explicitly in the middle of Matins and almost all the time, except during the Resurrection Matins at Pascha, which is not penitential but fully celebratory.  It is also found in Great Compline and the Midnight Office when these are prayed especially in monasteries.  As mentioned before, it is prayed quietly by the priest whenever he incenses at the Divine Liturgy and at the Cherubic Hymn.

Sacraments of Penance – In preparation for the Sacrament and as with other penitential prayers it forms a basis of a holistic understanding of the call to repent of our sins and our internal  penitential spirit in acknowledgement of those sins. The psalm helps us take our external offenses and internalize them.

Other Prayers and Spiritual Images: There are many penitential prayers in the Church, and most of them include language from Psalm 50 somewhere.  So even the verse that we pray during the first week of Lent when we recite the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, we say ‘Have mercy on me O God, have mercy on me.’  This is the first verse of Psalm 50, repeated.  The prayer ‘Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy.’ is repeated on the lips of Orthodox Christians constantly.  These are the words of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!”  spoken perhaps thousands of times a day quietly in the heart by Orthodox Christians. The spiritual ‘air’ of Orthodoxy is permeated with the penitential and humble spirit of Psalm 50. 

The Internal and external sin.

A disease can exist inside of a person’s body, but be invisible to others, or even unknown to the patient him/hereself. Similarly, when we sin it is not always external or known to others.  But all sin is always internal – sin is a matter of the state of our hearts.  Just like denial of a disease, we may choose to ignore our symptoms especially if they are not externally obvious to others. We will even hide our symptoms from a doctor sometimes, saying, ‘It’s not that bad.’

When we sin we may tend to view it just in these external terms – what we did wrong or against another.  Today many never even say ‘I did this wrong, or this evil – but more often skirt the issue saying, ‘made a mistake’. Sin is a mistake – a big mistake – but more than a mistake.  When we speak this way there is no internal sensitivity or awareness of sin or its toxic effects and in fact it is easy to cast our sin as caused by others.  However, our recitation of Psalm 50 for us is meant to be intensely personal – just as personal as each of our sins.

Because Psalm 50 arose from a specific event – David’s double sin with Bathsheba followed by the hideous murder of her husband, Uriah  – it prompts a review.  So our next step will be to explore this Psalm by seeking a  better understand of its context in the Bible narrative.

During this holy Lenten season, let’s pray for one another, that we will recognize our sins, and pray to God for forgiveness and in His mercy will be heard. +

Lenten Series: Reflections on Psalm 50

March 2021

I’ve always felt that the evening services of Great Lent provided a special Moment to probe the truths of our Faith and to engage in our Faith in that distinctive way that Great Lent makes possible. There are many templates for bible studies and liturgical texts for this time, starting with the readings of Genesis, Proverbs, Isaiah, the Psalmody, etc. that are part of the fabric of our services, and over the years of parish priestly service I would often offer a few thoughts on these during the weekly liturgical services. In 2019, I endeavored to preach a series on Psalm 50.  I say endeavored because I discovered it a daunting task to try to probe the meaning of greatest of penitential psalms, which reveal the mind and heart of the Holy Prophet David, and upon which so much of the Orthodox spirit of penance and worship is established.  Failing to try, however, would be to leave unopened the treasure chest of spiritual depth that Psalm 50 opens to us. 

I was asked, at one point, about several of the talks I had done that year, so I looked for my outlines.  Finding some of them I thought I would approach the topic again, in written form this time. While there are occasional references to other Scriptures and the quotations from the Holy Fathers, my perspective on this is how the text resonates so profoundly to basic human experience, so that was the reflective stance that I used in my consideration of the subject.

My experience of encountering this psalm is remembered somewhat vividly.  I was an older child, sitting in church (I was Greek Catholic at the time), reading my prayer book.  This was the prayer book with the red edging suitable for the older kids – and even adults – not the simpler ‘First Communion’ Prayer Book.  I seem to recall reading it during the Liturgy, which was going on in Old Slavonic, so I had time on my hands since I didn’t understand Old Slavonic!  As part of the Morning Prayers as compiled in the prayer book, even as a child, I remember it being something unusual and special.  I read it many times and some of the phrases over the years became embedded in memory– which became a problem when I later had to memorize Psalm 50[i] as a  deacon and the version I needed to learn was a different translation.  I stumble over the translations to this day – the old one keeps popping up in my head messing things up!

It’s been six decades since I first encountered the psalm, and it remains something special. Rarely, if I read it slowly, does it fail to deliver some striking truth about myself, about God, and the possibilities of a restored relationship between us. It thoroughly reminds me that I am a sinner, and I go to it especially when, like David, I can admit in all honesty, “Against you only have I sinned.” As such, it can be a grounding ‘home base’ for one’s spiritual life.

 I hope and pray that this Psalm speaks to you as it has to me, since childhood, in a manner that illumines your relationship with God and His total mercy and forgiveness as first discovered, and exclaimed by the Prophet David who ‘Have mercy on me O God!”


[i] The Orthodox Church (as did the old Douay Reims Bible) used the Septuagint numbering of the psalms. But many of today’s bibles based on the Hebrew text number this as Psalm 51.  However, I’ll use the Church’s traditional numbering. I will not be doing much in-depth exegesis of Hebrew nor Greek texts as such although this can open new vistas of understanding of any biblical text. Rather I’ll rely more on secondary sources, especially the Church’s liturgical texts founded on patristic thought.

Stewardship Reflections for Holy Week – The Cursed Fig Tree

During Holy Week and the weeks of the Paschal season, we’ll turn the pages of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition to probe some of the stewardship themes brought to us by the Church.  Because this time is so intensive – it’s impossible for to explore in depth the multitude of these themes, hence this endeavor to reflect up on them to ascertain their context and spiritual meaning. 

 

The spiritual intensity builds with each day, each service held during Holy Week.  In short, the Church as the voice of Christ, casts down the gauntlet to His followers to imitate Him in every way, as He has commanded.  The sayings and teachings, the metaphors, examples and especially the actions of the Master become the template for life for the Christian.  The Suffering Servant invites His followers to suffer and to serve, and to suffer through service.   He gives us spiritual food and spiritual warnings – exemplified most perfectly in the bitter dichotomy of rejection of Judas of that which was Most Precious, for that which is worldly, in thirty pieces of silver which he would hold for mere minutes – just as Adam would taste the fruit of destruction but for a moment, before it destroyed him.

 

Great and Holy Monday  – The Cursed Fig Tree (Mt. 21:18ff)

As the glory of the Entrance into Jerusalem recedes during Holy Week, we see Christ magnifying the terse contrast of the emerging Kingdom with the decayed state of the Judaism as it was practiced by its spiritual leaders (the Pharisees and the Sadducees).  This state of decay was made clearl by the curse of the fig tree – in a strange but powerful miracle that points to the spiritual withering of Judaism, and the eventual Roman conquest politically.  (Mk. 11:12ff, Mt. 21:18ff, Lk. 13:6ff).  In Matthew and Mark, this story is reported as taking place during that period immediately before the Crucifixion of the Lord, and tied to the opposition of the Chief priests and scribes who were complicit in His death.   This connection to the ‘death’ of their reign as spiritual leaders of a fruitless generation, is central to first level of  meaning in the event.  Indeed, the bearing for fruit was needful, otherwise the tree is worthless.

How and, more importantly, why does this speak to the Christian Church about stewardship today?

Well, first, we must recognize the obvious here, that this has nothing to do with stewardship as financial management.  Rather it points to the deeper reality of stewardship – as the careful nurturing of the spiritual life.  This stewardship nurturing was necessary not only in the Jewish people, who were the great spiritual heirs and recipients of the Covenantal relationship with the Lord entrusted to them as a people.  It was more than a ‘spiritual heritage’, but a living relationship with God Himself – but they had reduced this to religious practices and human traditions.  As recipients of the spiritual relationship of the New Covenant in Christ, this warning needs to be important to us as well.

This Lord’s Covenant with the Hebrews through Moses was privileged and distinctive, but needed to bear fruit.  In decrying the behavior of the Chief priests and scribes, he insists that it’s not the Law or even their teaching that is at fault.  Rather it is their behavior – which instead of a spiritually flowering and fruitful life, had become dead – and this death, like a disease, would propagate to others.  So the internal spiritual state of the leaders was taking the entirety of the Jewish nation and people down with them.  In other words, by failing to properly live the spiritual life through the righteous observance of the Law themselves, they not only failed to lead others to righteousness, but became themselves a stumbling block to anyone who did.  Jesus spares no words in condemning them for how they corrupted the proselytes they brought into their religious system and made them.  With rapid-fire imagery in Matthew 23, He brings righteous condemnation to their failures, all the while inviting those who would hear Him to a change of mind and heart – in a word, repentance.  Two of these leaders would hear these words and take them to heart – and so we will find Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea at the foot of Cross.

Bearing Spiritual Fruit

So we see that our stewardship of our spiritual life must be of prime importance.  This begins with our selves – and indeed, the greatest condemnation for the Pharisees and scribes was over their arrogant hypocrisy – laying heavy spiritual burdens on others (disciples) while not following the Law themselves.  Taking this to heart, our spiritual right to lead others only goes as far as our own practice (praxis) of the Faith.  This means taking the teachings of Jesus to heart and stewarding our lifestyle in the ways of simplicity of life and humble service of others that are hallmarks of the way of Jesus.   This may (and must) begin in the heart, but in the end it must be lived out in faithfulness to Christ, His people, and His commandments.

Failing this, like the fig tree condemned, no spiritual fruit will be born, at least none that matures and brings sweetness, nourishment and life to people.  It is not sufficient to have ‘green leaves’ and look the part, without bearing fruit.  In His teachings about ‘pruning the vine’ (Jn. 15) and ‘fertilizing the fig tree’ (Lk. 13:8) we are assured that God will provide every blessing, and every opportunity to bear fruit spiritually.  But failing this, the fruitless fig is destined to wither, death and destruction.

This story is frightening and it should be.  We must be fruit in our spiritual life – which is then manifest in our lives in practical, visible ways.  What does this fruit look like?  There are many varieties of fig – and there are many ways to bear fruit in the Kingdom!  The good tree will bear good fruit.  The fruit is the fruit of righteousness – which is, put simply love of God and love of neighbor.  When this spiritual  fruit is visibly maturing, we are manifesting the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, etc. (Gal. 5)  We are doing the ‘labor of love’ for the Lord in our Churches, and our Churches are alive, with a pulsating spirit of love, mercy, generosity and fellowship.  We are working out our salvation and something rich and life-giving is emerging.

Parish Stewardship – Fruitful or Not

Parishes that are alive in Christ exercise Christian stewardship by the fruits it bears.  These are communities which are hospitable and receive many blessings by God to foster its life and work.  These communities are true communities, formed and sustained by real relationships (spiritual and friendship) – founded in a living relationship with Christ. But these relationships go beyond the walls of the parish itself and reach deeply into the communities that surround them.  These are relationships of care, service, and humility that lead to a sharing of the good news of Christ in evangelization, through love, not pressure.  To quote the old song, these churches are known they are Christian by their love.

Parishes that don’t take spiritual  stewardship seriously will die.   It’s that simple.   They produce no fruit and will be cut down.  The Lord has provided every opportunity for growth – and no grace spared – that the spiritual fruits of maturity might be harvested.  In some cases, the fruit may be born – but never matures, ripens or nourishes.  It’s full of potential that’s never realized.  These communities are not communities of love, but no different from the example of the Jewish state of affairs above.  Their life is waning – it will fade and vanish.  We cannot ever judge the spiritual state of any community – but we must beg the Master to sustain our  life – or in some cases, resurrect the life He planted within His Church.

As with any living plant, sustaining water and food are necessary and it’s no different with the spiritual life.  There is no stewardship in practice unless there is health in the soul which is the soil from which the visible life emerges.  The sustaining grace present in the Holy Mysteries, prayer, spiritual reading, fellowship are not optional – they bring us life.  In some cases, as in the passage in Luke 13, there is special care needed – counseling, penance, asceticism – but with these comes restoration, health and ‘production’.

Final Reckoning

This general theme – stewardship of the spiritual treasure – will be repeated in many different forms.  We all will do well, not only during Holy Week, to open our minds to the deep, life-giving gift of our Orthodox Faith, the pulse of life in our souls.  How well are we fostering this life – not only individually – but as families of Faith and parishes that bear fruit for the salvation of the world.  These chapters all point to that final reckoning, when the Master will bring forth His judgment upon us – and whether or not there was not only life, but fruit in abundance for the Life of the world.

 

Now Available on Ancient Faith

Stewardship and Time – an Interview with Dr. Nicole Roccas on the Ancient Faith Podcast: First Fruits of Christian Living – Orthodox Christian Stewardship Today:

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/firstfruits/stewardship_of_time_with_dr._nicole_roccas

See also the Interview on the Stewardship of Time on Nicole’s podcast – Time Eternal:

https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/timeeternal/making_time_with_fr._robert_holet

Comments welcome!!