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23 March 2015

On Space and Time (Palmarum / Sunday of the Passion)

Psalm 31

On one occasion Ma-tsu and Po-chang  were out for a walk, when they saw some wild geese flying past.

"What are they?" asked Ma-tsu.
"They're wild geese," said Po-chang.
"Where are they at this moment?" demanded Ma-tsu.
Po-chang replied, "They've already flown away."

Suddenly Ma-tsu grabbed Po-chang by the nose and twisted it so that he cried out in pain.

"How," shouted Ma-tsu, "could you say they ever have flown away? From the very beginning they are just here." Po-chang broke into a cold sweat and was awakened.

So goes an old teaching story from the Chinese school of Zen Buddhism. The questions "where" and "when" that occur in the story point to themes in this week's psalm (Psalm 31).

Entreaty (VV 1-2)
In you, O Lord, I have taken shelter! / Never let me be humiliated! / Vindicate me by rescuing me!  2 Listen to me! Quickly deliver me! / Be my protector and refuge*, / a stronghold where I can be safe! 

Confidence (VV 3-8)
3 For you are my high ridge and my stronghold; / for the sake of your own reputation you lead me and guide me. 4 You will free me from the net they hid for me, / for you are my place of refuge. 5 Into your hand I entrust my life; / you will rescue me, O Lord, the faithful God. 6 I hate those who serve worthless idols, / but I trust in the Lord. 7 I will be happy and rejoice in your faithfulness, / because you notice my pain / and you are aware of how distressed I am. 8 You do not deliver me over to the power of the enemy; / you have set my feet^ in a wide open place. 

Distress (VV 9-13)
9 Have mercy on me, for I am in distress! / My eyes grow dim from suffering. / I have lost my strength**. 10 For my life nears its end in pain; / my years draw to a close as I groan. / My strength fails me because of my sin, / and my bones become brittle. 11 Because of all my enemies, people disdain me; / my neighbors are appalled by my suffering –/ those who know me are horrified by my condition; / those who see me in the street run away from me. 12 I am forgotten, like a dead man no one thinks about; / I am regarded as worthless, like a broken jar. 13 For I hear what so many are saying, / the terrifying news that comes from every direction. / When they plot together against me, / they figure out how they can take my life. 

Entreaty (VV 14-18)
14 But I trust in you, O Lord! / I declare, “You are my God!” 15 My times are in your hands.¶ / Rescue me from the power of my enemies and those who chase me. 16 Smile *** on your servant! / Deliver me because of your faithfulness!  17 O Lord, do not let me be humiliated, / for I call out to you!  May evil men be humiliated! / May they go wailing to the grave! 18 May lying lips be silenced – / lips that speak defiantly against the innocent / with arrogance and contempt! 

Praise (VV 19-22)
19 How great is your favor, / which you store up for your loyal followers! /In plain sight of everyone you bestow it on those who take shelter in you. 20 You hide them with you, where they are safe from the attacks of men; / you conceal them in a shelter, where they are safe from slanderous attacks. 21 The Lord deserves praise / for he demonstrated his amazing faithfulness to me when I was besieged by enemies. 22 I jumped to conclusions and said, / “I am cut off from your presence!” /But you heard my plea for mercy when I cried out to you for help.  

Exhortation (VV 23-24)
23 Love the Lord, all you faithful followers of his! / The Lord protects those who have integrity,/ but he pays back in full the one who acts arrogantly. 24 Be strong and confident¶¶ /  all you who wait on the Lord!

It is likely that the first time most of us encountered Psalm 31 was in Luke Chapter 23, in the last of the seven words Jesus is said to have spoken from the cross.  In Luke 23:46 the evangelist reports that Jesus was quoting Psalm 31:5: Into your hands I commit my life/spirit.

Luke 23:46
Πάτερ, εις χείρας σου
παρατίθεμαι τὸ πνευμά μου. 

Psalm 31:5
בְּיָדְךָ֮ אַפְקִ֪יד ר֫וּחִ֥י 

I want to return, though, to the questions of "where" and "when". Consider VV 8 and 15.

הֶֽעֱמַ֖דְתָּ בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב רַגְלָֽי
You have set my feet in a wide open place. (V 8)

The word מֶרְחָב (merchab, wide open space) can mean enlargement, either literally (an open space, usually in a good sense), or figuratively (liberty) -- breadth, large place (room).

בְּיָדְךָ֥ עִתֹּתָ֑י
My times are in your hands. (V 15)

The noun עֵת (eth, time) often means always, appointed time, circumstances, or season.

Our conception of space and time has undergone much change since Albert Einstein turned upside down what we thought we knew.  Far from the old idea that space and time are constants that remain the same in all conditions, modern scholars think of them as dynamic and dependent on the observer:

"If you try to get your hands on time, it's always slipping through your fingers," says Julian Barbour, British physicist. "People are sure time is there, but they can't get hold of it. My feeling is that they can't get hold of it because it isn't there at all."  

If indeed time is nothing but an illusion, perhaps to protect our human brains from getting overwhelmed with a multitude of "nows" that happen simultaneously, then modern science comes remarkably close to the Zen story I related above: 

"How could you say the geese have ever have flown away? From the very beginning they are just here." 

In contrast, the Psalmist isn't interested in such speculative stuff.  Look again at the two verses from Psalm 31. "You have set my feet in a wide open place. ... My times are in your hands." The Psalmist doesn't think in abstractions, but brings us back "down to earth".  Her statements are deeply personal; they are an expression of her faith in her God who cares deeply.  

Whatever terrible things occur in the twenty-four verses of our psalm, especially in those assigned as reading for Passion Sunday (VV 9-16), these two verses convey the Psalmist's relationship with God.

One of my favorite German words comes to mind: Geborgenheit.  Like the Hebrew word chesed (see some of my earlier posts), Geborgenheit is almost untranslatable, as it contains security, protection, warmth, closeness, peace, trust, acceptance, and love.

The Psalmist invites us to think of our space and our times.  Look, she says, with God, you'll always have the space you need, and with God's guidance, your times will always be protected.  As one commentary says, she "grounds us in the reality of today’s world where we can find refuge in God".


* Hebrew: "become for me a rocky summit of refuge".
**Hebrew: "my breath and my stomach grow weak".
¶ NET phrasing replaced with that of NRSV.
***Hebrew: "cause your face to shine"
¶¶Hebrew: "be strong and let your heart be confident"
^ NET phrasing replaced with that of NRSV

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