In the Name of God, Righteous, Merciful and Forgiving, Amen.
In the first lesson, which we did not read, David sets his sights on resources that do not belong to him, cash crops and currency on the hoof. Being more attuned to the threat he represents than her drunk and belligerent husband, Abigail grants David and his band of thugs provisions. David confirms her assessment of him by bragging that if she had not submitted to his demands, he would’ve slaughtered every male among the people with whom she lived. It is the famous “every male that pisses up against the wall” threat. In its best light it might only mean males old enough to pee standing up. David takes from her husband as well and then immediately after his timely death, takes her and on the way to wherever it is that they are going stops and takes another woman to wife. David has begun his collection of women which will lead to his increasingly violent displays of power culminating in sexual violence. The romantic readings of the Abigail and David story allow people to ignore the extortion and violence that is at the heart of it.
The psalmist is not likely responding to David’s life of crime, theft, robbery, extortion, rape. Indeed, it is presented as the wisdom of David traditionally though it’s unclear when he would’ve had the time to become literate. Even when read as a composition in his honor or one which he dictated and this was written down for him as suggested by the phrase that is commonly read as “a psalm of David,” David is exceptional because of who he is, who he becomes and how he is remembered. But he is not the world’s only violent man. He is not the only person to use what power he has, in his case the capacity for violence, to get what he wants at any cost. In a small bit of irony, the literary voice of the psalmist has watched men like David do what they want with no accountability. It seems the psalmist has seen a lot of life. Enough to have seen men like David come and go. And out of her wisdom and experience she speaks to people like me, and maybe you, who see people being oppressed, being taken advantage of, being harmed and get angry about it. It seems to me that she is having a conversation and only one side has been recorded. Let me suggest what the other side might be using my sanctified imagination.
Be not angry on account of the wicked.
Well, I am angry. Today I am angry about a thirteenth person in the custody of the state of New York on Rikers Island having died while in the care of the state. I’m angry a lot. I’m angry about a lot. I’m angry about the wicked and the harm they do. I could give you a list. But you probably have your own list. And I bet there is some crossover.
…be not envious of wrongdoers.
I’m not envious of them. I don’t want anything they have. But I am frustrated that they do so well and for so long.
…they will soon wither like the wild grass, and fade like the planted grass.
How long God? How long is “soon.”
Let go of anger and forsake wrath; be not angry; it leads only to evil.
It’s not that simple. Sometimes anger is a useful tool. Sometimes anger just feels good. Sometimes anger is righteous but the psalmist doesn’t want to hear that today. She would rather we not be angry at all or act out of anger that is not righteous and do more harm than good.
… the wicked shall be cut off… and … a little more time and the wicked will be no more.
And when exactly will that be? It’s looking a little grim out here. Just a little longer she says. I’ve been waiting all my life. I come from a waiting people. We’re tired of waiting. I’m tired of waiting. And it’s not even that I want the wicked to get theirs. Although I do. I just want to see the oppressed set free. I want to see just in my lifetime.
The humble poor will inherit the land.
Will the land be worth anything by then? I mean, the planet is on fire except for the portions that are underwater and even some of that is coming to a boil but it’s still not safe to drink in Jackson, Mississippi and parts of Flint, Michigan. It’s not like it was when you first penned these words.
To all my objections and complaints, the psalmist says:
I have seen the wicked oppressing,
and spreading themselves out like a native green tree.
They passed on, and suddenly! They were no more…
The psalmist speaks to more than the anger that can arise when contemplating the way those who have wealth, and particularly those who have earned it unjustly, seem to flourish while so many struggle and sometimes fail to meet their daily needs. She refers to the burning rage and fury that is often God’s in other passages and here should be considered excessive anger rather than righteous anger. She also speaks with the perspective of God looking at the expanse of time, which is minute in divine perspective. For that which is unseen and that which is not yet, she bids us wait on and hope in the God who sees us, knows us, and will not abandon us.
Yet, we must acknowledge these beautiful words and hope-filled promises are not food in the belly, a roof over the head, or clothing upon one’s back. They are not escape from the tyrant’s fist or sufficiency after the pillaging of the thief. They are not safety from abusers or bullets.
Galatians 5 enters the chat and it has a word to say about how we treat each other. It is an ancient and enduring word, Love your neighbor as yourself. This indeed is the whole Torah.
I mean it would be great. But that’s not where we are.
Be led by the Spirit. Sounds good in theory until you hear a whole bunch of people saying that the Spirit led them to take away your reproductive rights or prevent you from voting because they and they only know the will of God for this country. There’s a little more here, a list of what love looks like from one person’s perspective that has become pretty influential. I’m not going to argue the particulars.
And then there is that tax cheat, swindler and likely extortionist Zacchaeus – with the Roman police at his beck and call because taxes were a matter of the state, the threat of violence backed up his every official word and deed. But Zacchaeus heard about a mamma’s boy from Nazareth.
The stories about Jesus were enticing. I don’t know that anybody is running to see Jesus based off of the ways in which his name is invoked in the news and in memes today. But Zacchaeus heard something that made him want to see and hear more. And that’s what I think evangelism is today, telling a Jesus story that draws people to Jesus for themselves.
Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. And Jesus wanted to see him. The narrator wants us to know that Zacchaeus had dirty money that came from exploiting his own people. People who may have prayed Psalm 37 and been angry every time he put his little thumb on the tax scale:
…the wicked shall be cut off; little more time and the wicked will be no more…
But they still had to pay his tax bill no matter how dishonest or unjust. And they were still living under Roman occupation.
Under that same occupation though feeling it less as a chief tax collector, big time Zacchaeus had an encounter with Jesus that changed him down to his wallet. He became spontaneously generous; surely there was a little guilt in there. And while he did not quite want to confess his wrongdoing, he put out a hypothetical with some legalese CYA that IF he had defrauded anyone, he would repay them along with a significant penalty. But it was enough for Jesus. We don’t have to get it exactly right.
Jesus told him that he, Jesus, needed to stay at his, Zacchaeus’s, a house perhaps built with funds that traveled upstream from the pyramid scheme that was tax collecting in the ancient world. He needed to go home with him, this man who fleeced the flock for a living. Jesus needed to spend time with him. He needed to spend time with his family who is not mentioned, who I am reading into the text with my sanctified imagination. There was, in my reading, a wife and children who were ostracized because of what Zacchaeus did. And Jesus came to see them after Zacchaeus had his conversion moment on the road from Jericho. Confession – however conditional and conversion were followed by communion. Communion with Jesus.
Jesus says he has come to seek out and save the lost. If you are exploiting your sister or brother you are lost. If you are sitting on a pile of riches while people around you are hungry, homeless and lack healthcare, you are lost. If you are so hungry for property and possessions and people you can treat like property, you are lost. Riches may buffer some of the hardships of life, but one can have all the wealth in the world and still be deeply lost. Yet Jesus wants to see you and in the language of my people, see about you. To see you converted, not in the creed of any church, but in your communion with the people around you making your company a place that Jesus wants to stop by and sit a spell. The conversion of Zacchaeus may make the psalmist’s point. Just give it time she whispers from her knitting and her rocking chair. And I whisper, I’m still angry but I believe in the power of God to convert the corrupt. And failing that, … the wicked shall be cut off… and … a little more time and the wicked will be no more. Amen.
Opening Eucharist 31 August 2022, Brite Divinity School
Year W, Proper 17: 1 Samuel 25:14–19, 23–25, 32–34, 42–43; Psalm 37:1–2, 7–11, 16, 35–40; Galatians 5:13–21; Luke 19:1–10