Psalm 14 begins:
Lord, who shall be admitted to your tent
and dwell on your holy mountain?
Then follows the remainder of the psalm, a list of ways that a person can enter the Kingdom of God:
He who walks without fault;
he who acts with justice
and speaks the truth from his heart;
he who does not slander with his tongue;
he who does no wrong to his brother,
who casts no slur on his neighbour, …etc.
At first glance, this psalm and many like it present a significant problem in personal prayer: How can I pray using words that I break so often? I walk with fault; I am not always just; I am not always truthful – I even lie to myself; I swear and I slander, because I am weak; I do wrong, and I cast slurs on my neighbour. Who among us is so perfect that they can’t agree with me? The passage can be disheartening, because it sets the moral yardstick unattainably high; I may as well concede that I won’t be admitted to His tent. What’s the point? Why am I even using this passage as a means into prayer?
It is a dangerous game telling someone how to pray, or even just talking about prayer. The more we talk about it, the less we do it. Each and every person must pray as they can, not as they can’t. In monastic life, the best answer to this question is Lectio Divina – the monastic practice of reading scripture slowly, as though picking a few square centimetres of grass and gently combing through it, to see what’s there. When read prayerfully, with pauses and re-reading, and asking the Holy Spirit to come to us, a sentence may come to the fore of our thoughts, or a short passage, or even just a single word. We trust that this is the Spirit leading us to ponder in the stillness. We might call this activity ‘walking around inside Scripture’. Sometimes, as we walk, there will be nothing, and that’s fine. We’ve not been abandoned; we won’t starve, spiritually. We know this, because we are knocking at Jesus’ door and He has told us that who knocks, enters. The practice is an insight into those around us, the wider world and, of course, ourselves. Lectio Divina is teaching from God; it is dialogue in the silence.
In a very real way, the following meditation is a form of written Lectio Divina in which I, the author, have pondered psalm 14 and then written my own prayerful findings.
During the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the moral and social landscape of the day was almost unrecognisable compared to the one we now live in. What was seen as a ‘good’ person has changed over the centuries. If you were rich or healthy, it was because God favoured you; the poor and the sick were seen not only as dirty and to be avoided socially, but as a part of society rejected by God. According to the moral code of the day, these people were to endure such hardships because God was punishing them. Think about Jesus’ parable in which the rich man, who is sent to Hell, cannot understand why he is there, whilst the poor beggar Lazarus gets to live in eternal peace in the Kingdom of God.
One of the social norms of this time, was casting out the godless, driving them to the fringes of society. There are many examples of this in Scripture. In Psalm 14, verse 4 reads:
[who shall be admitted to your tent:
he] who holds the godless in disdain
but honour those who fear the Lord.
We can see, then, why the Pharisees thought ill of Jesus when he kept company with outcasts, dined with tax collectors and conversed with sinners. It was a social, moral, religious scandal; the greatest there could be. He was blasphemous. He was a renegade, an up-rooter of traditions, a dangerous man.
We must also remember that the God of the psalms was often a military, sniper-like God who braces arrows, takes aim, puts to flight, sweeps away and strikes terror into those not chosen by Him.
When Jesus came along, all this was challenged. His ministry was as controversial as anything ever known. He turned a well-recognised and heavily guarded understanding of God on its head, and attacked the Scribes and Pharisees, those unpleasant guardians of the faith. His ministry was quite literally the ultimate war of love, bloody and sacrificial.
He certainly came well prepared. One of my favourite thoughts is to ponder Jesus learning the Psalter by heart, no doubt as a child, taught by Mary in the house, whilst Joseph worked to sustain them. He often recalled the psalms, and it isn’t difficult to picture Him approaching the passage about ‘the godless’ with unusual compassion: hate the evil, but not the evil-doer. Jesus came, not to overturn a recognised religion, but to fulfil it. Suddenly, that God of retribution had another side: His house has many rooms, not just one; He takes pity on the weak and the downtrodden; He punishes the proud and the hypocrites. And nothing showed this more than listening to Jesus, and looking out into the crowd at those he was talking to: the beggars, the sick, the hungry, the dying, the humble. Jesus’ message was one of hope for humanity. This new and exciting message had behind it the loving and forgiving Father, who runs out to meet His wayward son, and who shows no favouritism to His children. Jesus’ ministry brought the world a new moral code.
This code is a gift from our Creator God; it is a law, a new covenant. It isn’t just a collection of words, or a handbook of dos and don’ts; it is endlessly more interactive than that. The code is in each of us, and we have a special vocation to know and love this code, personally. Yes, each and every person. To become possessed of this code is what we are for; yes, the code is Jesus Himself.
When I see Jesus as my moral code, I see psalm 14 differently. Gone is the unattainable yardstick and the hopelessness of my condition. I read the psalm and see two things. Firstly, I see how mankind makes laws and lives by them, to such a degree that the written letter becomes more sacred than life itself. We beat ourselves up. We make it easy for ourselves, and cast out those we’d rather not see. When we see weakness and failure in others, we see it in ourselves, and that frightens us. So we make a law to disinherit them. Secondly, I see Christ coming to do the Father’s will, the loving Father Who is Judge and Lover, a God Who is in love with all His creation. So different was this understanding of God, that we nailed this God of love to a tree. And He did this to redeem us into Himself, and give us the best chance we can have of living alongside Lazarus in Paradise. He did this in the very centre of humanity’s littleness and, despite our lack of understanding, our rejection and our unshakable egos, He loves us more than we can ever know.