Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ransomed! Rejoice!

The psalter of tonight's Evening Prayer includes  psalm 49, wherein the psalmist muses (with his harp) on the problem of the evident prosperity of so many evil people. He concludes that since this life is fleeting and  you can't take it with you, therefore, the passing wealth of sinners should not bother us. 

And even though we agree with the psalmist's conclusion, one can't help but wince a bit by that refrain, In his riches, man lacks wisdom, he is like the beasts that are destroyed.  There's two reasons for the wince: 1. As Christians we are hoping that even those rich sinners will be saved and 2. deep down we know that in many respects we fall into the category of rich sinner, relying too much on material things, clinging to our financial portfolios, or, if we don't have much in the way of a portfolio, obsessing too much over this lack.  

But there is a more positive theme we can focus on in this psalm. Look:
For no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life.
The ransom of his soul is beyond him.
He cannot buy life without end, 
nor avoid coming to the grave.
then, in the second half of the psalm:
But God will ransom me from death
and take my soul to himself.

It appears that the ancient Jews were not clear on what happens to us after death. Early in the Old Testament it seems that the belief was that everyone went to a generic realm of the dead. God had not given them a clear revelation about this. But the idea of eternal rewards and punishments slowly evolved as the Holy Spirit inspired the writers and teachers of Israel. By the time Jesus came, there was a definite idea of heaven and hell --see our Lord's parable of Lazarus and Dives-- that was held by most Jews (although the ruling Sadducees  still did not appear to believe in life after death). 

Whatever the psalmist was thinking when he said "God will ransom me", we can see here a prophecy of the redemption.   A much more cheering thought than that  bit about the beasts that are destroyed. 

Then, in the New Testament canticle from Revelation, God confirms that the hope of the psalmist was fulfilled in Jesus:
With your blood you ransomed for God men of every race and tongue, of every people and nation.

Here I used the Revised Standard Version, which uses the verb "ransomed" rather than the New American Bible "purchased", just to emphasize the way all three elements of tonight's psalter are so neatly tied together. Tonight's reading also follows up on this theme, including our suspicion, noted above, that on the one hand, all  of us are a bunch of foolish, rich sinners, but that all of us have been undeservedly justified by the one who has ransomed/ redeemed/bought us back.