Psalm 73 reads like a commentary on today’s world. In America, we are seeing the demise of the middle class and a significant rise in poverty. We are watching the rich get immensely richer while the poor get significantly poorer.
Across the globe, across the ages this has been a terrible truth for most of the people on the planet.
The problem is not simply that some people are rich and others are poor. The problem is the arrogance, self-righteousness and indifference prosperity can create in a person. The problem is the deep inequities that diminish and devalue the very people who are made in God’s own image and likeness.
I was envious of the arrogant;
I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain;
their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against heaven,
and their tongues range over the earth.
The oppression of the rich over the poor is as old as humankind itself.
But what is even more troubling is the applause and approval oligarchs often receive from the very people who are crushed and burdened by their practices and policies. We’ve heard the phrase: “voting against our interests” numerous times within the American context and there is something to that phenomenon that continues to baffle us.
Therefore the people turn and praise them
and find no fault in them.
And they say, “How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Such are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
What is that about? How is it that poor people continue to trust rich people?
The psalmist laments the injustice of his society. His heart and his theology tell him that wickedness will be punished and righteousness will be rewarded. But “No, Not Necessarily” is his actual experience.
All in vain I have kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
How do we make sense of such unbalance? Maybe it doesn’t make sense. Not in any framework that we can imagine, anyway. Maybe we need to enlarge our imagination to a cosmic scale and consider our lives within the eternal, eschatological frame of reference.
Truly you set them in slippery places;
you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes;
on awaking you despise their phantoms.
Jesus told a parable about the rich man and the man Lazarus who begged for a morsel as he sat homeless outside the rich man’s gate. The cosmic, divine justice in the story is either comforting or chilling – depending on where we see ourselves.
When Jesus taught the truths of the upside-down, inside-out beatitudes, poverty was clearly at the front of his mind. “Blessed are the poor…” Luke’s gospel says. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” Matthew softens just a bit. The point is: truth isn’t what we see and know with our human eyes; the truth of God’s eternal right-making often can only be seen with the eyes of faith.
When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant…
It is faith that allows us to grasp some inkling of God’s work of Shalom within the universe. It is faith that allows us to wait without bitterness and envy.
It is faith that motivates us to work on behalf of God’s justice.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Indeed, those who are far from you will perish;
you put an end to those who are false to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
to tell of all your works.
Scripture comes to us from the bottom. The Hebrew texts and the Christian writings all came from the hands and the hearts and the experiences of the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. When Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official state religion of Rome, Scripture began to be read through the lens of privilege and began to be interpreted for the advantage of those in power.
One recent movement, Liberation Theology, challenges that perspective with a clear, sharp prophetic word: “God holds a preferential option for the poor.” And God’s work of right-making has always – and will always – be about “bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly.”
This is part of the divine balancing of creation.
And this is the message people of faith must trust and live and preach and work to enact within all our various societies.
Truly God is good to the upright,
to those who are pure in heart.
May God’s people also be “good,” that is, to act with goodness, fairness and justice to all our neighbors. Our work is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.
God’s work is to judge and set the world aright.