September 28, 2014, Fifteenth After Trinity
Live for Him!
Proverbs 26:1-12, Psalm 49, Galatians 6:11-18, St. Matthew 6:24-34
A legend tells of a merchant in Baghdad who one day sent his servant to the market. Before very long the servant came back, white and trembling, and in great agitation said to his master:
“Down at the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned around I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Master, please lend me your horse, for I must hasten away to avoid her. I will ride to Samarra and there I will hide, and Death will not find me.”
The merchant lent him his horse and the servant galloped away in great haste. Later the merchant went down to the marketplace and saw Death standing in the crowd. He went over to her and asked, “Why did you frighten my servant this morning? Why did you make a threatening gesture?”
“That was not a threatening gesture,” Death said. “It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
Everyone knows you can’t escape Death. And yet we are assembled here to proclaim that no matter what everyone knows, you can. And we have.
Psalm 49 shows us a rare instance of the personification of death in the Bible. Verse 14 tells the fate of the foolish: “Death shall feed on them.”
A disproportionate number of the rich are foolish, says the Psalmist, for they believe their wealth will allow them to cheat death. Their descendants will carry on their name forever, their houses will endure as monuments to them, their businesses will identify them as prominent persons long after their demise.
Yes, they will see the grave . . . but unlike the poor they will live on in posterity; they will never be forgotten.
The Psalmist shakes his head: “Like sheep they are laid in the grave; Death shall feed on them; the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall be consumed in the grave, far from their dwelling” (v. 14).
The poet is less concerned with the rich man’s oppression of the poor than with his worldliness. When a man invests his trust in gold, gold becomes his god . . . and gold makes a sorry savior. The New Testament conveys this idea with the declaration that it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to see heaven.
Wealth can be a devil’s snare. The Gospel of Luke tells of a rich farmer who ran afoul of it. As Jesus tells in a parable, the farmer decided that he had accumulated such an abundance of crops that he no longer needed to bestir himself but could eat, drink and be merry.
"But God said to him, `Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."
In each case, the author is decrying not wealth itself but faith in it. Here is wisdom, and it is well-placed for this is a wisdom psalm. It shows an affinity with Proverbs in that way, and with Ecclesiastes in its recognition of the vanity of this life.
But, more than Ecclesiastes, it offers hope to those who place their trust not in gold but in God.
This is wisdom not for the Jews alone. The Psalmist begins: “Hear this, all peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world . . .” All the nations should know the folly of misplaced faith.
We must consider what death and afterlife meant to these ancients who lived centuries before the coming of Christ. Their understanding is not that of most first-century Jews, the beliefs of Pharisees and others we find in the gospels. It is closer to that of the Sadducees, a minority within Israel who were annihilationists. Life, they said, ended at the grave.
Hell was the place of the dead, both good and bad. The Greeks of old saw Hades as a place of shadow and decay. In Homer’s epic, the “Iliad,” the souls of those who died in battle went to Hades and “the men themselves” were eaten by dogs and birds.
The body was the person, the soul a faint image of him. In Hades, the soul babbles incoherently until a man from the land of the living provides it sacrificial blood to drink, restoring reason. C. S. Lewis thought this might not be so far removed from our concept of hell.
The fate of the unredeemed, he speculated, might be “just this – to disintegrate in soul as in body, to be a witless psychic sediment.”
If this be true, Lewis went on, pagans were anticipating in a mistaken but nonetheless striking way the gospel truth. Do we not, he meant, drink sacrificial blood which restores life in us?
The place the Hebrew Scriptures call Sheol was not so distant from Hades, but more remote still in its concept of an afterlife. Over and again, the Psalmist reveals his despair:
“How long, LORD? Will You hide Yourself forever? Will Your wrath burn like fire? Remember how short my time is; for what futility have You created all the children of men? What man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his life from the power of the grave?” (89:46-48)
Again, “Surely every man walks about like a shadow; surely they busy themselves in vain; he heaps up riches, and does not know who will gather them” (39:6).
Again, “For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?” (6:5)
Again, “Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” ( 88:12)
These passages reflect the same bewilderment we find in Psalm 49. Here’s 49:19: “He shall go to the generation of his fathers; they shall never see light.”
When the poet addresses in his first verse the “inhabitants of the world,” the word for “world” is a rare one, which, overflowing with uncertainty, refers to this passing age.
We can glean a bit more from the rites of the Canaanites, Israel’s closest neighbors. They devised a way to neutralize death that involved, as did everything else in their religion, appeasing their gods. They performed rituals of self-mutilation and sacrifices for the dead to maintain the departed in the afterlife.
The law of Moses forbade such cultic practices, saving the Jews from the most ghastly practices of their neighbors, including child sacrifice.
"You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods,” we read in Deuteronomy (12:31) “for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.”
Yahweh’s covenant people were to know death in a markedly different way. It was an intruder in the creation, the result of sin, and man had no power to negate or neutralize it. When King Saul engaged a medium called the Witch of Endor to summon up the ghost of the prophet Samuel so Saul could receive counsel from the beyond, we recall, he committed a grave sin.
Many in our age misunderstand the Old Testament’s – and indeed the entire Bible’s – presentation of death because of Yahweh’s authorization of capital punishment. The death penalty reflects a high view of life, not a low one. A word of caution: I am discussing here not my own view of the matter but the biblical standard.
The principle of proportionality did not inspire retribution; it restricted it. “An eye for an eye” meant that one who suffered the loss of an eye could take his assailant’s eye in return – and no more.
But God held the creatures He had made in His image in such esteem that He allowed capital punishment to signal the worth of every human soul. A lesser penalty would have cheapened the value of the life that was taken.
The same principle obtains regarding Yahweh’s instruction to His people Israel to decimate the peoples of Canaan when they took up residence in the land of promise.
In sacrificing their children, the Canaanites were ministers of death serving the lord of death in a culture of death. It could not be allowed to go on. God was commanding the death penalty for a depraved culture.
Yet we read to our horror that His covenant people did not eliminate it and they went beyond tolerating it. They married into it and absorbed many of its idolatrous practices and so brought death – expulsion from the land where they lived in the presence of the one true God – upon themselves.
If those ancient Jews had a deeper understanding of death than others, however, they did not, as we have seen, have a better grasp of the afterlife.
God’s revelation comes incrementally, and these Jews of old were as perplexed as the pagans as to what to expect beyond the grave. When the Psalmist sings, as in Psalm 49, “But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave,” he is probably referring to divine intercession to save his physical life.
C. S. Lewis proposes – not in a dogmatic way but by way of suggestion – a possible rationale for Israel’s stunted understanding of existence in Sheol:
Whether a person anticipates paradise or perdition, Lewis says, he is dithering with things that “are not really religious subjects at all.” His real interest is in gaining reward and avoiding punishment. He has put himself at the center of existence . . . and so relegated God to a lesser station.
To develop a religious understanding, the proper sequence is developing first what Lewis calls an “appetite for God”; only when he – whether a Jew living 3,000 years ago or any of us today – has come to know God Himself as the believer’s great reward can he latch onto a proper notion of heaven and hell.
Quoting Lewis now: “Later, when, after centuries of spiritual training, men have learned to desire and adore God, to pant after Him . . . it is another matter. For then those who love God will desire not only to enjoy Him but ‘to enjoy Him forever,’ and will fear to lose Him. And it is by that door that a truly religious hope of Heaven and fear of Hell enter, as corollaries to a faith already centered on God . . .”
The great classicist goes on to say that when we fail to see heaven as union with God and hell as separation from Him we turn our religion into a superstition. What we’re left with is a vague hope that everything will turn out all right in the end, on the one hand, and a nightmare to drive us insane, on the other.
So Lewis, in the company of a number of astute Bible commentators, believes the Psalmist has a primitive understanding of an afterlife. On this view, his concern in Psalm 49 and elsewhere is merely to portray Death as the great equalizer.
He is offering consolation to the poor and downtrodden, the comfort of knowing their suffering is temporary and the glory of the wealthy a fleeting illusion. In the end, everyone lands in “the Pit,” whatever that shadowy place may hold. No one will buy his way out.
But we do find in the Psalter, and especially here, pointers to the New Testament concepts of ransom and redemption: “None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him . . .”
Looking back, we have no trouble at all reading in the gospel truth that only God can pay the ransom that redeems sinners. We are saved by the blood of the Lamb.
And of course the revelation of the afterlife available to us, while vastly more than those ancient Jews had, leaves us miles short of a complete understanding. A more contemporary legend sums things up:
A man with serious and mounting health problems turned to his doctor as he was preparing to leave the examination room and said, “Doctor, I am afraid to die. Tell me what lies on the other side.”
Quietly, the doctor said, “I don't know.”
“You don't know? You claim to be a Christian man, and you don't know what's on the other side?”
The doctor was holding the handle of a side door. On the other side came a sound of scratching and whining. As he opened the door, a dog sprang into the room and leaped on him with a lavish, slobbering show of affection.
Turning to the patient, the doctor said, “Did you see that? My dog has never been in this room before. He didn’t know what was inside – except for one thing. He knew nothing except that his master was here, and when the door opened he ran in without fear.
“I know little of what is on the other side of death, but I know one thing. I know my Master is there . . . and that’s enough.” Amen.