Monday, October 20, 2008

Firmly Planted Tree or Wind Blown Chaff?

The righteous faithful or wicked sinners. Blessed or not. A tree firmly planted by streams of water or chaff which is blown away by a simple breeze. Such is the contrast of Psalm 1. And it is not only a contrast of this first Psalm. This is a contrast common to the Psalms as a whole as this Psalm serves as a sort of introduction to the entire Psalter. It is even a contrast common to much of Scripture.

And yet this contrast bothers me. It bothers me because it seems entirely too black and white for the world in which we live. It seems too simple and straightforward to account for my every day experience in this world. Can we really split people into two basic categories; the righteous and the wicked? Doesn't that seem a bit extreme? It seems to me that we encounter varying levels of righteousness in every person we meet whoever they might be. I even find varying levels of righteousness and wickedness within myself from day to day. This simple black and white division of the world between the righteous and the wicked is certainly appealing in some ways. After all, life would be much simpler if everyone just had a sign to designate them as one or the other. This would help tremendously in knowing who we could trust and who we couldn't. But, of course, life just isn't that simple since there seems to be some saint and sinner in each of us.

This contrast also bothers me because it sounds like exactly the kind of assumption that Jesus continually worked against in his own earthly ministry. As the gospels tell the story, it seems that Jesus repeatedly encountered the assumption that misfortune in life (the opposite of the blessedness described in this Psalm) was the result of one's sin. It seems that Jesus' contemporaries were constantly trying to separate the clean and holy from the unclean and unholy. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to be constantly destroying such a simplistic division between righteous and unrighteous. Instead of separating holy from unholy, Jesus continually points out the unholiness of those who think themselves holy and continually goes to those who are seen as unholy and makes them holy. Furthermore, this kind of simplistic attitude which Jesus challenged in his own day seems to be the root of much of the Church's troubles today. When we divide people into the righteous and the wicked, it leads to an arrogance and complaceny among those who considers themselves righteous as well as an animosity or at least condescendence toward those considered wicked. Certainly, these are attitudes which sound very little like those of Christ Jesus.
And yet...

This Psalm speaks a truth that every person who has ever walked with God and meditated on God's instruction knows to be true. There is, indeed, blessing and delight in the law of God, in living the life to which God calls us. Living in God's will firmly roots our lives and places us beside streams of life that sustain us in a way that nothing else can. It does this in a way that is almost inexplicable. It is not that living the life of righteousness guarantees that you will become healthy, wealthy, and wise. But blessedness should also not be relegated to simply a feeling or emotion. There is something real and concrete about God's blessing and yet it is not easily quantifiable by most of the standards that our world uses to measure things.

Perhaps if we see blessedness through the lense of Jesus' life, we will see that even God's blessing can sometimes lead us to the cross. Perhaps we will be less likely to so quickly separate people into the categories of righteous and sinner, seeing that the cross of Christ somehow represents an unexpected uniting of the fates of the righteous and the sinner. Perhaps Psalm 1 can be an invitation to the sinner in each of us to allow God's rightesouness to grow in us so that we might delight in God's law day and night, so that we might be a tree firmly transplated by streams of water, rather than chaff that is blown away in the wind. Perhaps the way of the wicked in each of us can perish even from our own lives which will in itself be a blessing as we anticipate the day when all wickedness will be eliminated from our world. Psalm 1 simultaneously offers an honest portrait of the destructive patterns of our world but contrasts it with an image of what life lived in God's grace can be.

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