The Righteous Sinner: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 26 February 2012

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 26 February 2012 (First Sunday of Lent, Year B)

Genesis 9:8-17  •  Psalm 25:1-10  •  1 Peter 3:18-22  •  Mark 1:9-15

When I do preach this on Sunday, I’m going to preach the entire Psalm, in case anyone is wondering.  My essay here will reflect all 22 verses, not just the first ten.

This likely makes me a bad systematic theologian, but I really enjoy the fact that the Psalms are so leaky, theologically speaking.   There’s no doubt that Psalm 25 finds its home securely in stories of sin and redemption and deliverance.  But there’s little sense in the text that those categories fit into any simplistic system.  The one asking YHWH to forgive sins is also the one calling for protection from the violent.  The one rejoicing in the goodness of YHWH is also the one calling on YHWH to remember.  This is no abstract system of thought but the song of people who live lives alongside and under and before and in memory of God, and the movement from section to section implies a storied life that demands both a bold crying-out in the face of injustice and a confident rejoicing in things unseen.  In short, the Psalm is a prayer and says what prayer is like, and that often means an acknowledgement of uncomfortable complexity.

To call such an outlook uncomfortable is not the same as saying there’s no comfort to it.  On the contrary, the persona’s voice in the Psalm (I’m still ambivalent, all these years later, on how to translate l’David) speaks with a strength of personality that I can’t help but enjoy, and more often than not I read the Psalms, especially the lament Psalms, for the sake of emulating their frankness about the world.  My own tendency is to turn bad events into mere material phenomena, to ask the rhetorical, “Well what did you expect?” when a more faithful soul would call out to God not to make sense of evil (that’s all too easy) but to remember God’s promises to do good for God’s people.  But for someone like me, someone entirely too modern for his own good and too given to materialistic explanation as a defense against the unspeakability of suffering and the powerlessness of mortals in the face of our enemies, the Psalms always stand ready to teach me how to be a sinner.  And how to be the righteous man, crying out in outrage.

That the same person should be both is no mystery to the systematic-minded, of course; certainly every system of theology worth studying does something to account for the persistence of sinful desire in the hearts of the redeemed.  But the Psalms aren’t giving an account: they’re the primary materials, the experience of being sinner and saint, translated into Hebrew poetry, set forth for us to recite and upon which to meditate and to preach, and we do well to remember that the “problem” of sin’s persistence, no matter how fascinating as a mathematical conundrum, always emerges from the experience of prayer before it becomes an object of contemplation.  That’s the balance that the Psalms lend to the spiritual lives of examiners like myself.

May our hearts cry out; may our theologies always rise from the rag and bone shop of the heart.

1 thought on “The Righteous Sinner: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 26 February 2012

  1. Nathan,

    I’m a little late jumping in on this one, but I wanted to say that I appreciate your statement, “This likely makes me a bad systematic theologian, but I really enjoy the fact that the Psalms are so leaky, theologically speaking”.

    I have come to think, and you probably don’t go this far with the idea, that systematic theology has become the “written in stone” that many in Christianity claim to avoid. Yes, there are subjects in the New Testement such as sin, salvation, the church, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the end times, etc,; but rather than trying to make them come together and fit like a fine tuned engine, maybe we should approach them like the writers of Psalms approach God; with an intelligent and creative passion, which sometimes makes us see and feel diffently than we saw them yesterday.

    I am a NEW student of A. Heshel’s writings, so I do not claim to be an authority. But what I see in Heshel is one who, though he loved his traditions, approached scriptures with a poet’s heart finding life in them for the “now”, and, to use a term that make most conservative Christians cringe, the “situation.” I wish more Christian ministers apprached scripture in that fashion.

    I realize this is not the gist of your post. But this is what grabbed me.

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