#26 of a Series on Psalm 50 – “I will teach transgressors your ways… .“ (Orthodox Study Bible)
I find this verse of Psalm 50 to be among the most amazing of the whole psalm. It’s a sign of just how far the penitent prophet David has come. Here, in this string of verses that speak of the David’s restoration, he expresses both the desire (before God) to teach other transgressors about the mercy and forgiveness of God, and the boldness to assert this by faith in prayer and that he is not disqualified by his sin from doing so. It’s an amazing statement of his desire to help others caught in the clutches of their transgressions.
While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us… (Rom. 5:8)
Notice here that St. Paul does not say, ‘While you were yet sinners…”, but “while we were yet sinners.” Elsewhere he calls himself the ‘chief’ among sinners. (1Tim. 1:15) Yet, Paul has the audacity to teach others about sin, having been freed from it by the grace of God. He never shies from confronting sin in the Christian communities he serves, nor makes excuses for sin, but he directs his words and actions against ungodly offenses. This is his teaching – coming from which he has exceedingly painful experience of his own sins. The wartime scout who was part of an army that got slaughtered while he and only a few survived, is the one best in the position to know what can go wrong and warn others about the dangers out there. Like David, Paul had blood on his hands. But he too, like David, came to know thoroughly the repentance of which David taught. Perhaps St. Paul’s reading of Psalm 50 brought encouragement and assurance to him in the course of his own spiritual healing and repentance.
I wonder if this gave a type an authenticity to St. Paul’s message? People who have had cancer say that other people who have the disease and lived with it are the ones in the best position to speak to recovering from it – it has a ring of compassion and authenticity.
Teaching about Repentance – A Narrow Path to Walk
With the opening words of the Gospel of St. Mark 1, ‘Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’, the Gospel is preached and taught to people to help the them go through a process of repentance in their life. The Gospel as preached from the Pentecost day by the Apostle Peter:
“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, “Repent….. “ Acts 2:37f
At all times, the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus is always a call to repentance. And it’s always preached by forgiven sinners[i].
Preaching the Gospel, all the while knowing you’re a sinner, is a difficult and narrow road to walk. I think of the danger posed to, and by, newly converted Christians (or perhaps other religions) to let their zeal take them to confront others in pride about their sins with the goal to ‘convert them.’ In fact, the presence of pride in one’s own soul signals that such a person is in no position to convert anyone, until the sin of pride has been discovered and by the mercy of God uprooted, healed and forgiven. Often, the newly converted become the ‘rock stars’ of an emotional movement approach to religion and when their star falls dramatically, or fades, the faith of others goes with it.[ii]
But another danger is fear – or a nagging sense of lingering unworthiness that somehow, because I was SOOO EVIL, I could never be any good for anyone else. This is an accusation of the Devil which denies the very mercy and forgiveness that Psalm 50 proclaims. While this thought pattern may seemingly be safe in some ways, it limits what God can do in us, and through us. It is said that St. Peter, another of the ‘great’ sinners having betrayed Christ three times, would weep deeply every time he spoke to people of his betrayal of the Lord. Perhaps, because he was called to given his ‘testimony’ so frequently, and revisit the pain of his former way and betrayal, that the experience ‘grounded’ him not only in the reality of who he really was when he left Christ, but also that incredible confrontation by the Lord Jesus on the shore of Tiberius, when he asked three times, ‘Peter do you love me?’ And Peter’s affirmation of his love and acceptance of the Lord’s mercy would set him free to be the Apostle he was called to be.
Personally, I’ve always had trouble with this, because, as a priest, if I disclose my sins to others, especially those deeply personal or terribly sinful, that this would be a scandal to others and the priesthood itself. This fear of scandal has been perpetuated in the Church (clerical ranks) so much so that it’s one reason why terrible evils have gone on in the Church,[iii] such as recent sexual abuse by priests. Church officials, driven by fear of ‘scandal’ rather than faith in God, have covered up the evils, ignored the victims, silenced the narrative and covered everything over. This is not what Christ had in mind when He taught this!
There is one more way to slip on the trail of confrontation of sin – one in which we are immersed culturally today. Some sins are simply ignored. Certain crimes are more deemed ‘important’ than others. As I write this, waves of riotous looting is rampaging through some of our major US cities. Hundreds are innocent people in the city ghettos are murdered in cold blood every weekend. Allowing people to remain in sin is a death sentence, for some literally, but living and dying in sin is the ultimate spiritual death sentence. The Gospel is preached by forgiven sinners to sinners who need to hear that message for the salvation of their souls.
David was confronted by the Prophet Nathan and confessed his sin. David’s sin became known – his adulterous activity would lead to the death of the child to be born and David’s grief would be deep and well-known. And if that wasn’t enough, his Psalm would put to words exactly what the state of his heart was in his sorrow and mourning for his sin. These words are repeated again and again for ages of ages for all to hear.
Two More Examples
So before everyone goes out of the confessional and starts preaching to all, we can see another way in which God can use the life of the penitent soul to His glory. Being perfected in penance through decades of severe asceticism in the desert, following her early years of sexual profligacy, St. Mary of Egypt became a model of repentance in the Church. During her life in the desert she never spoke to a soul, save the priestly servant Zosima who was sent to minister to her and learn her story that it might be shared with the entire Church. Today, she teaches us Orthodox Christians every year, through the reading of her life story at the Great Penitential Matins of St. Andrew of Crete on the fifth Thursday of Great Lent. She is commemorated specially on the following Sunday – and through all of this, countless Christians hear the story of her life, her repentance, her restoration in grace, and the miracles of her life in the desert.
Abba Matta El Meskeen[iv], known in the Western world also as ‘Elder Matthew the Poor’, a Coptic Orthodox monk shares with us a word of wisdom about coming to the point where we can actually teach others.[v] He is talking about “premature freedom” – thinking you can do something before you are spiritually mature. He says,
“..(I)ndeed, freedom is desirable for the soul but it is not to be wrenched by force. Those who presume to taste love before tasting the cross are rebuked….’My brethren, let not many of you become teachers’, for you are still in the stage of penitence. A penitent’s place is the dunghill rather than the throne of teaching. The words of premature teaching prior to fulfilling the requirements of penance stop us from ardently seeking the road to salvation…..Can you speak more eloquently than the words uttered in the books of the saints? If you wish to help your brother let it be through prayer, humility, love, endurance and patience.”
Today, centuries later, St. Mary and the Holy Fathers continue to teach the Gospel to us sinners, if we are willing to listen.
And sometimes we too are called to teach in some context in our own time– and we can do so if our own life reflects the penitential Spirit of David, Peter, Paul, the Apostles, the Holy Fathers and Mothers (like St. Mary of Egypt and Matthew the Poor. Ω
[i] Sinners on their road to sainthood.
[ii] I’ve seen this in many Church traditions, including Orthodoxy.
[iii] Because of its widespread publicity, the scandals among Roman Catholic clergy are well known, but no Church body (including the Orthodox Churches) have failed to some degree. Because these are so sensitive, discretion and caution are always called for because accusations are not always true. But the pastoral care of souls is also about bringing forth the witness to the Truth.
[iv] Reposed in the Lord, +2006.
[v] Excerpted from a yet unpublished book on the Life of Elder Matta titled Sojourners.