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Sunday 13 September 2020

The constancy of God’s mercy

Psalm 103/102; Matthew 18:21-35


By John Deehan

Parish Priest of Our Lady Help of Christians, Kentish Town

Context: an inner London Roman Catholic mixed parish with a predominant number of older people

Aim: to show how the psalms can be relevant to people’s spirituality

Today I would like to do something unusual and focus on the Psalm. The Psalms show us how our ancestors prayed, in good times and in bad, how the Church prays, and above all how Jesus prayed. When Jesus prayed on the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ he was quoting the first line of a psalm (Psalm 22/21) which expressed his trust in God his Father. The Lord in his humanity felt alone and forsaken, but nevertheless he continued to trust in God, even when God appeared not to answer, and his trust was answered when he was raised from the dead. If we are called to take a stand, we can find ourselves in a lonely place too, and have to dig deep into our reserves of faith.

If you look carefully at the psalm we read today, you will notice how it begins with a single voice - ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’ (v 1) - and then many others join in - ‘He does not treat us according to our sins’ (v 2). The author speaks not just for himself, but for the whole of God’s people, and for the whole human race. One for all and all for one.

‘My soul give thanks to the Lord and never forget all his blessings’ (v 2). ‘All my being bless his holy name!’ (v 1). Clearly the person who wrote our psalm did not live just on the surface of life. It is someone who is profoundly aware that life comes as a series of gifts and blessings from God, and responds with the whole of their being – their mind, their emotions their spirit and will, physically and mentally – someone we might today call well-integrated.

So, what is the blessing? The blessing for which our psalmist gives thanks is described in terms of forgiveness of sins, and healing. We are not given any details about the sins themselves. All is expressed in very general terms, because no two people’s experience, however common, is exactly the same. But the experience is describing something that can be potentially quite debilitating and extreme. Hence God is described as the One ‘who redeems your life from the grave’ (v 4). In the Scriptures death is not just the condition we are in when we draw our last breath; a living person can be effectively ‘dead’ if through the build-up of bad moral choices their physical, spiritual or mental life is wrecked - a kind of total breakdown. In the Scriptures too there is a mysterious link between sin and illness, so the Psalmist can speak of God, ‘healing every one of your ills’ (v 3). This was a controversial point even for the Old Testament writers. Job, for example, in his illness keeps professing his innocence, when all his comforters are trying to get him to admit his guilt.

Be that as it may, the psalmist is not trying to analyse human pathology but rather is giving thanks to a God whose whole way of relating to us is through mercy, compassion and healing, a God who does not bear grudges or want to take revenge. So, it is possible to be redeemed from the grave, to be released from a seemingly hopeless situation, and that is the experience for which the psalmist gives thanks, on his own behalf and that of his people.

Not only does the psalmist give thanks for his own healing, but he offers hope to those who are still in the midst of their own crisis – ‘His wrath will come to an end. He will not be angry for ever’ (v 9). In the Biblical world the physical and mental consequences of sin were often attributed to the wrath, or fierce anger of God. Sometimes this was described in terms of God turning his face from us, a sense on our part being abandoned by God. God knows and understands our weakness and fallibility. He does not abandon us but waits patiently for the sinner to repent. He moves with us at the pace we can endure. At the same time God does not normally heal with silver bullets. We have to do our part

St Augustine, reflecting on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, said that the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is revealed in the New. Today’s Psalm is also gospel, good news for us and it is reflected in the gospel story of the wicked creditor who had no pity for his debtor. While on the surface the Gospel appears to have nothing to do with the psalm, the God of the gospel is the God of the Psalms too. The gospel is a warning to us not to imitate the wicked creditor in our dealings with others, because God is not like that, and did not create us to be that kind of human being.

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