(In this diocese we use the Psalm appointed for Morning Prayer both at Matins and at the Mass that follows)
The Epistle. Romans. 8:18-23
The Gospel. St. Luke 6:36-42
Were it not taught to us that we can only understand the truth rightly in eternal rather than temporal terms, we should find some of the statements from today’s scripture readings to be quite fantastic, if not scandalous. I mean, specifically, Psalm 91. If read from a purely temporal point of view it makes no sense, promising long life and complete freedom from the very things which bring death and sorrow to ordinary men. Are Christians not ordinary? Are we not mortal, and subject to suffering and death? How could the Psalmist write such things?
Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night,* nor for the arrow that flieth by day.
I recall having a certain kind of misgiving and worry when the crazy snipers were terrorizing the DC area a few years ago, not only for myself, but for loved ones who might travel through Northern Virginia, or around Washington. I even recall wishing to avoid Montgomery and Prince George’s County- I certainly had no intention of needing to fill up my tank there. I admit that I was in a certain sense, afraid of the arrow that flieth by day.
For the pestilence that walketh in darkness, * nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noonday.
Yes, but when I visit people in hospitals, and come across signs that require that I suit up in a surgical mask and gloves I do so. Let us remember that the devil himself used this very Psalm to try to tempt the Lord into leaping off the temple roof to make a big show. This Psalm can be misused, as anyone who has met the “faith and prosperity” crowd among the Charismatics surely can testify. Their error is the same in its effect as the pathetic “Christian Scientist” who, refusing to use medicine, sentences himself to an early grave.
The “faith and prosperity” teaching, for those who do not know, is a popular heresy which teaches, essentially, that anyone who has true faith will not be sick, or poor, or in want. Therefore, people who suffer illness, financial shortage, or any other inconvenience of this mortal life, are led by the spirit of error into believing that their own faith is insufficient to please God, be it in reality perhaps even larger than a grain of mustard seed. Nonetheless, woe to any who “in this transitory life are in sorrow, need, sickness or any other adversity.” Sadly, they are used to such theological cruelty, having been taught long ago that their love for friends and relatives cannot extend beyond this world, for they cannot even pray for the departed.
Their interpretation of scripture is very like the devil’s, as I said before, when he misquoted this Psalm to our Lord. In fact, come to think of it, it is more than simply like the devil’s interpretation.
A reading of this Psalm without an eternal perspective can become even worse, if we read it with such blindness, in the verses that follow:
A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand; * but it shall not come nigh thee. Yea with thine eyes shalt thou behold, * and see the reward of the ungodly.
This is the Psalm read often by men going into combat; my father was greatly comforted by this Psalm as he was on his way to France to fight the Germans. But, if you were to ask him, or any man who has seen war, do only the worst of sinners fall in battle? The answer would be a very quick “no.” Indeed, it is often some of the best and bravest, indeed some who, having possessed true charity, gave their lives for their friends. Was he comforted, then, because he imagined that the Psalm promised him survival? I think not; he had no idea whether he would live through the war, or die. As every soldier entering his nation’s service in time of war, he gave his life when he enlisted. It was up to God whether or not he would receive it back.
Is early death, and suffering, a sign of God’s wrath- is it the reward of the ungodly? The enemies of our Lord Jesus seemed to think so, as they dared to enjoy His suffering and to mock Him with vicious insults. He was not only dying, but was clearly under a curse, as Moses taught in the very Law of God, for He was “hanged upon a tree.” And, yet in this we see, with St. Paul who wrote about it to the Churches of the Galatians, that He became a curse for us, so that we may receive the blessing of God.
In his days as a Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus was convinced that Jesus, Who was so cursed as to hang upon a tree, must have been an ungodly man, and a pretender. Young Saul’s great act of righteousness, therefore, was to persecute those who proclaimed Jesus as the Christ. He had considered it so, and wrote that he had, later as St. Paul the Apostle, in a passage in his Epistle to the Philippians. On the road to Damascus he met the Risen Christ. Only in the blinding light of revelation, could Saul of Tarsus see that his great work, by which he felt extraordinarily righteous, was the worst of sins. Yet, in the same moment, he began to understand the mercy and grace of God which he would ever proclaim for the rest of his life.
Our only hope of true understanding, the eternal perspective, begins with the cross. The prophet Isaiah foresaw the redemptive suffering of the Servant of the LORD.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities,
the chastisement of our peace was upon Him,
and with His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray:
We have turned everyone to his own way;
And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
...He was cut off from the land of the living;
For the transgression of my people was He stricken.
(from Isaiah 53)
Here we see the reward of the ungodly; but what? It has fallen on the head of the One Man who lived a perfect life, and Who was in every point tempted as we are, yet was without sin. The plague and pestilence, the arrow that files by day, the sickness at noon day, the falling into early death, the reward of the ungodly, borne and suffered on the cross by the Righteous One, the One Who became poor for our sakes. Remember that I read to you from The Republic of Plato a while back, how the philosopher rightly saw the world as so evil that if a perfectly just man were to live in it, he would be sentenced to a cruel death by torture. The reward of the ungodly was handed to, and willingly accepted by, the only Just Man ever to have come into the world.
Yes, the cross is where our understanding in the eternal perspective must begin; indeed, it can begin no where else.
What then of our sorrows? What of the trials and sufferings of this time? St. Paul has already answered this for us. They “are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Our death may, for all some of us know, be early in worldly terms, but it is no death at all; for in Christ we live for ever. We may fall sick, or into troubles, though we pray not. But, we shall have a long life nonetheless, if we are in Christ. For what can be longer than eternity?
It is in this light, and only in this light, that we can hope to become obedient to the seemingly extraordinary commands given to His disciples by our Lord in today’s Gospel reading. How can we be so merciful, and so generous in spirit, so humble and quick to repent of our own failings, if it is not because God has given to us the gift, as our “Ruler and Guide,” that “we may pass through things temporal” in such a way “that we finally lose not the things which are eternal?”
And now unto God, the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion, glory and power, now and forever.