Psalm 53; Job 29; 1 Corinthians 5:9–6:8

Psalm 53: Alter notes that this psalm is essentially a duplication of Psalm 14 with only a few minor changes. But perhaps it’s in twice because its message needs to be heard often.

The opening lines pull no punches: “The scoundrel has said in his heart,/ ‘There is no God.'” (2) We certainly live in an age where Western culture believes it has outgrown its need for the “psychological crutch” called “God” and dismisses those who believe as weaklings and fools. Worse, it is accusing those who believe in God and the moral prescriptions of the Bible as being “intolerant”–the greatest sin of our age. But I digress…

As far as the psalmist is concerned, it is those who dismiss God that are the fools and scoundrels: “They corrupt and do loathsome misdeeds./ There is none who does good.” The formula here is very simple: disbelief equates to a corruption of the soul and consequently, actions.

In an evocation of the Noah story, “The Lord from the heavens looked down/ on the sons of humankind/ to see, is there someone discerning, someone seeking God.” (3) The evidence is not encouraging: There is none who does good./ There is not even one.” The psalmist links that ancient story directly to the people of Israel in his day: “They did not call on God.”

But even though the world seems to be populated by those who have rejected God, God never gives up.  There is always hope, as the psalmist concludes, “O, may from Zion come Israel’s rescue/ when God restores His people’s condition…May Israel rejoice.” (7) And for us who live in a world that has rejected God, hope nevertheless abounds.

 Job 29: Job resumes his defense, in one of the most intensely nostalgic chapters in the Bible. We can hear the regret as Job remembers how things once were: “O that I were as in the months of old,/ as in the days when God watched over me;” (2) Those were the days, he recalls, “when I was in my prime,/ when the friendship of God was upon my tent.” (4) Are there sadder words than these: “when the Almighty was still with me,/ when my children were around me?” (5). Job once commanded respect at every stratum of society, even “the voices of princes were hushed,/ and their tongues stuck to the roof of their mouths.” (10)

Moreover, Job had earned this respect because he served God and every part of society: “…I delivered the poor who cried,/ and the orphan who had no helper. /… and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.” (12, 13) In a wonderful metaphor, Job recalls “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;/ my justice was like a robe and a turban.” (14) 

But perhaps worst of all is that Job has lost the respect of those who once “listened to me, and waited,/ and kept silence for my counsel./After I spoke they did not speak again,/ and my word dropped upon them like dew.” (21, 22) He recalls these times almost as if he had taken on the qualities of God himself: “I smiled on them when they had no confidence;/ and the light of my countenance they did not extinguish.” (24)

It seems to me that if we ever needed proof that good works and respect can be fleeting; that we can crash into the depths of despair from the heights of joy, we need only look here. But then we need also to ask, are we hearing pride in Job’s voice? Are these memories too self-centered? Was Job really this person? Or has the contrast with his present sufferings created a sense that things were better than they actually were? That of course is the danger of nostalgia.

1 Corinthians 5:9–6:8: Even though we would doubtless prefer greater ambiguity, Paul is extremely clear here regarding sexual immorality: “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber.”  (5:11) Sexual immorality is at the top of the list and we are uncomfortable. I will note in passing that Paul is not specific as to what type of sexual immorality, but there’s still the question: where’s the grace here? Paul is pretty clear. Expel these evildoers: “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” (5:13)

On the other hand, when it comes to internal disputes within the community, keep them internal:”When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? ” (6:1) But it sounds like the matter taken to court was pretty trivial as Paul asks somewhat sarcastically, “…are you incompetent to try trivial cases?”  Of course in our own litigious age, we see that as far as disputes and lawsuits are concerned, very little has changed in two millennia.

We can see Paul shaking his head in disbelief about this issue: “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that.” (6:8) Would that we Christians took that advice more to heart. I remember my lawyer father shaking his head in disbelief at what upstanding churchgoers would do to each other when it came to lawsuits–and not paying their bills…

As happens again and again as we read this letter, we sure wish we knew the backstory. Paul must have received a letter from somebody at the church that listed each of these issues, as Paul seems to be working off a checklist here as he moves form topic to topic.  And he’s pretty p.o.ed.

 

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