SERMON: Greed, Grace, And Gratitude — An Approach to Preaching the Psalms by J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Greed, Grace, And Gratitude — An Approach to Preaching the Psalms J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

From Performing the Psalms

My approach in this essay is explicitly theological.  In its most basic sense, theology means thinking about God.  So, as I interpret the Psalms for preaching, I am constantly looking for a word from and about God and God’s will for the world.  More specifically, my working definition of theology is borrowed from David Tracy, who suggests that doing theology means thinking about religion culturally and thinking about culture religiously.  Or, as I like to paraphrase, Tracy, theology is thinking about God and God’s claim on the world in the context of where we find ourselves every day.

As contemporary North Americans, where we find ourselves every day is in the midst of an extremely affluent culture in which greed is pervasive.  The singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock has a song entitled, “Greed (A Sermonette),” in which they suggest that they are “trying to find a way to talk about greed.”  In a real sense, this essay is doing the same thing, in conversation with the book of Psalms.  In the first section, which focuses on the prayers in the Psalms (usually known as the laments or complaints), I shall suggest that attending to the pervasive reality of the enemies in the Psalms can serve to put us in touch with contemporary socioeconomic arrangements that oppose God’s will for the world – in short, I shall suggest that the prayers in the book of Psalms can teach us that greed is to be viewed as an enemy of God and of God’s people.  In the second section, which focuses on praise in the Psalms, I shall suggest that the antidote to rampant greed is the gratitude fostered by attending to the praise and thanksgiving found in the book of Psalms.


Although it has often been overlooked, a regular feature of the prayers in the Psalter is the presence of the psalmists’ enemies, or as they are also called (NRSV): “The wicked,” “the foes,” “the bloodthirsty,” “evildoers,” “workers of evil,” “pursuers,” “fools,” “hypocrites,” “adversaries,” “false witnesses,” “malicious witnesses,” “ruffians,” “wrongdoers,” “those who seek my life,” “the proud,” “the arrogant,” “assailants,” “the insolent,” “the ruthless,” and sometimes metaphorically, “bulls,” “dogs,” and “lions.”  In fact, in Books I and II of the Psalter (Psalms 1-72) where the prayers for help are concentrated, every psalm that is generally categorized as a prayer for help (or a lament/complaint – there are forty-six of them) has some reference to the enemies, with the possible exceptions of Psalm 4 (which does, however, mention people who “love vain words, and seek after lies”), Psalm 51 (in which the psalmist is his or her own worst enemy and which does mention “transgressors” and “sinners”), and Psalm 62 (in which the enemies are implied by way of a description of their activities – “assail a person” and “batter your victim”).  By any accounting, therefore, the enemies in the book of Psalms are pervasive, if not omnipresent.  And what is more, the psalmists several times complain that even their apparent friends, companions, and neighbors have become their opponents (see Psalms 38:11, 41:9).  Hence, I want to invite attention to this pervasive feature of the prayers in the book of Psalms.

What really got me thinking about and pursuing this dimension of the Psalms was a trip to Guatemala with a group of my students in 2001.  More specifically, it was the opportunity to meet and listen to the testimony of a man named Jose Antonio Puac, who worked for several years during the 1990s for the Office of Human Rights of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, as this office produced a report called Guatemala, Never Again! Recovery of Historical Memory Project.  The project was the equivalent to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process; it was an attempt to investigate, document, and tell the truth about the tens of thousands of persons killed, tortured, raped, and/or who disappeared in the civil strife in Guatemala between about 1960 and 1996.

The report was presented publicly at the national cathedral in Guatemala City on April 24, 1998, by the Bishop of Guatemala City, Juan Gerardi, whom Jose Antonio Puac had served as right-hand man and to whom he had looked as mentor and friend.  Two days later, Bishop Gerardi was brutally murdered in the garage of the rectory as he returned home.  It was left to people like Jose Antonio to attempt to further publicize the report, which obviously was not well received by certain powerful people in high places in Guatemala.  As our group sat in a room near the national cathedral in Guatemala City and listened to Jose Antonio as he told us about the report, about previous attempts on Gerardi’s life, and about his concern for his own safety and that of his family, it struck me vividly and indeed viscerally – here is a man who knows that he has enemies!  It really came home to me when Jose Antonio stood up during his presentation, walked over to the outside door to our room, and closed it cautiously.  He explained, “There is a military office across the courtyard, and they might not like it if they know what I am telling you.”  At which point, of course, we all realized that we had enemies too, and we became a bit concerned for our own safety.  We were fine, as it turned out; but I clearly remember thinking, and for the first time, even though I had been working intensively on the Psalms for many years: This must be what the psalmists actually felt like when they prayed the prayers for help in the book of Psalms!

As I have continued to think about Jose Antonio Puac and his courageous testimony and calling, another realization has struck me, especially as I consider my own life and experiences and those of other Christians in North American churches with whom I teach and learn about the Psalms – namely, we are not aware of having any enemies.  In fact, when I am teaching the Psalms in churches, I regularly ask people whether they have any enemies; and almost without exception, the answer is no.

This presents, of course, a real difficulty in identifying with and appreciating the psalmic prayers, in which, as suggested above, the psalmists are always aware of having enemies.  This difficulty is manifest often in peoples’ honest response to a careful reading of the prayers for help in the book of Psalms – that is, people often conclude that the psalmists must have been “whiners” and that they just sort of needed to get a grip and pull themselves together.  In other words, things could not have been as bad as the psalmists make them sound.  In short, because we are not aware of having any enemies, we cannot imagine that they really did either.  The most extreme example of this sort of response is one that I found in a book entitled Diseases in Antiquity, in which it was concluded that the psalmist’s complaint about the enemies in Psalm 35 could be attributed to “schizophrenia simplex.”  It was further concluded that the psalmist’s complaint about suffering in Psalm 38 represents “hypochondriacal ideas,” and the complaints about the enemies in Psalm 38:12 represent “delusions” accompanying “a depressive psychosis.”  In other words, the psalmists did not really have problems, and they did not really have enemies; rather, they were hypochondriacs and had paranoid delusions.  But, as Jose Antonio Puac helped me to realize, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you!  Like the psalmists who claim to suffer and to have enemies on account of their faith, there are at least some Christians in the contemporary world who really do suffer and who really do have enemies, precisely as a result of their faith and what their faith leads them to say and do.

Now, the question that I pose for myself, as well as most other North American Christians who do not seem to be aware of having any enemies, is this: Should we have enemies?  Without trying to be ambiguous or ambivalent, my answer is yes and no.  No, we should not make it a goal to offend people or turn them against us.  But yes, we probably should have enemies if we are faithful rather than simply innocuous.  What Reinhold Niebuhr said seventy-five years or so ago is still on target: “If a gospel is preached without opposition it is simply not the gospel which resulted in the cross.  In short, it is not the gospel of love.”  Let me be clear – the point is to be faithful, not offensive.  In the same paragraph just quoted, Niebuhr also concludes: “An astute pedagogy and a desire to speak the truth in love may greatly decrease opposition to a minister’s message and persuade a difficult minority to entertain at least, and perhaps profit by, his message.”  Our calling is not to offend, but to proclaim the Word faithfully.  If the Word, the gospel of love, is challenging, unsettling, and evokes opposition, as it always seems to, so be it.

So, from this perspective, maybe we should have enemies, as the psalmists always did.  Of course, scores of books, monographs, and articles have been written in an attempt to identify the enemies in the Psalms, often from a cult-functional – that is, an essentially sociohistorical – perspective.  For the purpose of preaching the Psalms, however, it seems more fruitful to proceed canonically.  Who else in scripture is regularly opposed for attempting faithfully to proclaim and embody God’s word and will for the world?  The prophets, for one; and it is not coincidental that the book of Jeremiah contains several laments – often misleadingly labeled “Jeremiah’s Confession” – in which he complains about the opposition that his faithfulness has evoked.  And, of course, for Christians, it is Jesus, who from the beginning of his ministry is opposed and eventually crucified for preaching and embodying the gospel of love.  As Marcus Borg aptly points out:

Jesus, like the great social prophets of the Hebrew Bible, was a God-intoxicated voice of religious, social protest.  He, like they, protested against and did a radical critique of the domination system of his day, just as they did of the domination systems of their day.  Indeed, if one wants to ask the historical question, not “Why did Jesus die?” but “Why was he killed?”, the answer is, he was killed because of his passion for justice.

Of course, it is not coincidental that the gospel-writers cannot tell the story of Jesus, especially the story of Jesus’s passion and death, without frequent use of the Psalms, especially the prayers for help, in which, as we have seen, the psalmists are always opposed. (See Psalms 22, 31, 41, 69, and 88.)

These canonical connections, of course, press the question, If the faithful psalmists always had enemies, and if the prophets always had enemies, and if Jesus always had enemies, then why don’t we?  And at the same time, these canonical connections open up a fruitful possibility for understanding the enemies in the Psalms, a possibility that may even enable us to develop an awareness of whom or what our enemies should be.  Taking as a clue the reality that the prophets and Jesus were opposed for faithfully proclaiming and embodying God’s justice and love, one can proceed in the direction suggested by Roland E. Murphy: “One can see the ‘enemies’ in the Psalms as a symbol for the powers of evil arrayed against all that is good and just.”  A virtually identical direction is articulated by James L. Mays:

The enemies are out to deprive the afflicted of either shalom or sedaqua [usually translated “righteousness” – that is, the condition of things being right] or both.  That is what makes them theologically important and what makes them a symbol that can be used in other and quite different social and cultural settings from the ones in which they were written.  We pray because we desire that God’s will and mind prevail – not our own, not others.

Note that both Murphy and Mays suggest that the enemies can be interpreted as “a symbol”; and as Mays suggests, this opens the way for appropriating in new “social and cultural settings” what the enemies symbolize.  This includes our cultural setting.  Note, too, that Mays mentions “God’s will”; and both he and Murphy use terms that form an admirable summary of what God wills – good(ness), just(ice), righteousness, and shalom.  When the Psalms portray the “coming” of the universal sovereign – that is, the presence of God in the world – they say that God is “coming” precisely “to establish justice (on) the Earth.  He will establish justice (in) the world with righteousness, and (among) the peoples with his faithfulness.” (Psalms 96:13, 98:9)  Psalm 82 even suggests that the fundamental criterion for divinity is the will for and establishment of justice and righteousness (the root shpt occurs in 82:1, 2, 3, 8; and the root sdq occurs in 82:3); and quite congruently, the mission of the Earthly king/messiah is put precisely in terms of justice and righteousness as well, (Psalm 72:1-3), the result of which shall be shalom, “peace.” (Psalm 72:3; NRSV “prosperity in v. 3)

Hence, to pray and to preach the Psalms is to stand for God’s will – goodness, justice, righteousness, and shalom – and to stand against the powers and forces that oppose God’s will in the world.  Thus, the Psalms, along with the prophets and Jesus, invite a spirituality or “ethic of resistance,” to borrow a phrase from Douglas John Hall.  Our task as preachers involves identifying the powers and forces in our social and cultural setting that work in opposition to God’s will for world-encompassing goodness, justice, righteousness, and shalom.  And our task as preachers involves inviting people to stand against and resist such powers and forces – that is, to consider these powers and forces as our enemies.

What are the powers and forces in our social and cultural setting that oppose God’s will for goodness, justice, righteousness, and shalom?  They are legion, of course, and there are many directions that we might pursue in response to this question.  But for illustrative purposes, as well as to provide some specificity, consider the following words of Martin Luther King, Jr.  They amount to a call to an “ethic of resistance,” or as King puts it, a call to be “maladjusted”:

There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.  I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination.  I never intend to adjust myself to the inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.  I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.  It may be that the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.  The challenge to us is to be maladjusted.

Given the state of race relations in the United States fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and given the current situation in Iraq, we might profitably and with good reason focus on what King calls the “evils of segregation” and “the madness of militarism,” but I want to take us in the direction of a consideration of our “economic system” primarily because its debilitating and destructive effects are more subtle and less obvious.

One can make an exceedingly strong case that today, every bit as much as when King wrote the above words in 1958, our economic system is taking “necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”  It is still happening within the U.S., and perhaps the most visible example is that 44 million people in the U.S., including 8.5 million children, cannot afford, or in any case do not have, health insurance – a situation, by the way, that recently prompted a remarkable alliance between the National Council of Churches and the Southern Baptists Convention in support of Cover the Uninsured Week (May 10-16, 2004).

But the gap between rich and poor is even more dramatic beyond the U.S., and the phenomenon euphemistically known as “globalization” is not helping the situation.  I say “euphemistically,” because “globalization” sounds like something that the Psalms would be in favor of, given their proclamation of God as a universal sovereign who claims the whole creation as God’s own. (See Psalms 24, 93, 95-99, 148, 150.)  But the current form of globalization is not happening on God’s terms.  Rather, as 2001 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Joseph Stiglitz, points out, the kind of globalization that is taking place is a sort of economic imperialism on the part of the seven or eight richest nations on Earth (the so-called G-7, or now with Russia, the G-8 nations); and the effect has been “to benefit the few at the expense of the many, the well-off at the expense of the poor.”

Particularly troubling to me is the way that the current form of globalization is driven by neo-liberal economic theory, which, at Stiglitz suggests by the language he uses to describe it, is something like a religion.  As he puts it:

The discontent with globalization arises not just from the economics seeming to be pushed over everything else, but because a particular view of economics – market fundamentalism – is pushed over all other views.  Opposition to globalization in many parts of the world is not to globalization per se, but to the particular set of doctrines that the international financial institutions [primarily the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund] have imposed.  While many organizations would like to believe that they are indeed infallible, the problem with the IMF is that it often acts as if it almost believes in its own infallibility.

Note the religious language – fundamentalism, doctrines, infallibility, belief.  When the market-mechanism, or anything else, is viewed as essentially infallible, then the issue, in theological terms, is idolatry.  No wonder that billions of people throughout the world are discontent with the current form of globalization!

In any case, for humanitarian reasons as well as for reasons related to economic theory, Stiglitz concludes that the current form of exclusively market-driven globalization must be opposed.  In his words:

If we are to address the legitimate concerns of those who have expressed a discontent with globalization, if we are to make globalization work for the billions of people for whom it has not, if we are to make globalization with a human face succeed, then our voices must be raised.  We cannot, should not, stand idly by.

Christians may be motivated to oppose the current form of globalization not only on humanitarian grounds, as Stiglitz does – that is, the fact that billions of impoverished people are discontent – but also on the grounds of our faith, including our reading, praying, and preaching of the Psalms.  In Psalmic terms, insofar as the current form of globalization is a power “arrayed against” God’s world-encompassing will for goodness, justice, righteousness, and shalom, it is our enemy, and it is to be opposed.  In other words, to speak on behalf of those billions of impoverished, discontent people, and to advocate for what is good for them, rather than for what is good for the United States, will inevitably be an act of resistance.

To be sure, particular care is in order at this point, and Stiglitz gives us a clue that is helpful.  The problem, he says, is not globalization per se, but rather the current form of it; and I would add that the problem is not capitalism per se, but rather the way that capitalism is often practiced without a human and humane face.  In other words, the real problem, the real enemy, is greed.  Hence, we turn now to a further analysis of our enemy – greed – and its debilitating and destructive effects.  The ultimate goal, however, will be to suggest that praise in the Psalms can serve as an antidote to the rampant greed that characterizes our everyday context.

grace and gratitude

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