Psalm 119 Gives Us 176 Ways…, Proper 24 (C) – 2010
October 17, 2010
Today’s psalm, Psalm 119, gives us 176 ways to say the same thing: “Happy are those who walk in the way of the Lord,” and “Oh, how I love your law!” and “All the day long, it is in my mind.” At 176 verses, it is the longest of all psalms. It consists of 22 eight-line stanzas, each stanza beginning with a sequential letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is an astonishing exercise in puzzle working, poetry, and praise.
Psalm 119 calls for the kind of continued learning Paul commends in his letter to Timothy. As a subject of our recitation and meditation, it offers an entrance into a life of continued, endless prayer. So Jesus tells a story to underscore our need to pray always and not lose heart. It is what Paul elsewhere commends: “pray without ceasing.”
And note the forceful summary by Jesus: for those chosen ones who pray day and night, justice shall come and come quickly.
Are we even aware of this linkage? That our prayers are to be linked to justice?
Don’t we often tend to be rather selfish in our prayers? We would always like immediate results – but would like those results to be centered on what we want rather than what we need.
And what Jesus says we need is to pray always and not to lose heart.
There is no better place to begin to pray always than with Psalm 119. One hundred and seventy-six verses reminding us to have Torah, God’s law, in our minds all day long. The word “Torah” or one of its synonyms appears in almost every one of the 176 verses: Torah, law decrees, precepts, statutes, commandments, ordinances.
A rabbi was once asked, “What does a rabbi do?” He replied, “A rabbi is to lead God’s people to study Torah so that one day everyone will know Torah. On that day when everyone knows Torah, everyone will be a rabbi so that there will no longer be any need for rabbis.”
This is the dream of God as revealed to the prophet Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” God wants us to become experts in loving the law and living the law.
We in the church tend to suffer grave misunderstandings about this word law. These misunderstandings come from misreading of Paul, compounded by particular Christian theologians throughout the ages. The word “law” sounds static with the sole purpose of convicting us of sin and misdoings.
Whereas a regular reading of all 176 verses of Psalm 119 would reveal a much richer range of meaning. The “law” is a treasure, a gift, really, that makes one wise and happy. The psalm is written in the first-person narrative voice, making the words of the psalm personal, words that belong to us, words that are given by God to be ours. Torah is not a static set of rules, but a map that provides a personal way of life, a guiding force, a pathway from which it is all too easy to stray but is sweeter than all alternative paths available.
At its core, Psalm 119 as a source of our daily prayer and meditation directs us to endlessly reflect on the Decalogue – the fancy theological name for the Ten Commandments. The first “table” or “tablet” of the Ten Commandments focuses on our love of God; the second “table” or “tablet” focuses on our love of neighbor.
Jesus spent much of his time discussing the law, Torah, with any and all persons he could. Jesus demonstrates that continual focus, discussion, and meditation on God’s law is what leads one in the way of life that is really life, and offers justice for all people. Torah, as understood at the time of Jesus, was a continual unfolding of God’s will, new each day, new in each age. Torah, or law, was not confining, but empowering, and necessary to being God’s people in the world.
And meditating on the law day and night, as Jesus lives and instructs us to do ourselves, reminds us of our God-given responsibilities to love and care for our neighbors, especially those in greatest need.
It turns out God does have a plan to care for those in greatest need: we are that plan.
How wonderful it would be if all of us, every day, would read all of Psalm 119. How might the world be different if our love of God’s law was something we treasured in our hearts all day long? For Jesus this is faith: Torah in action every day.
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