The psalmist’s confidence (and Jesus’ sidelong look)

Confidence and clarity

The world of the psalms is very black and white. There is the just man and there are enemies. There are still waters and raging torrents. There is lavish plenty and there is starvation. There are green meadows and barren deserts. Sometimes the psalmist is celebrating, sometimes he is lamenting; sometimes he is in danger, sometimes shouting in victory. He can be troubled, but he is rarely confused, and his attitude towards God is one of serene confidence.  Sometimes God takes a while to answer or lay on a rescue, and the psalmist feels free to use a tone of reproach or even scolding: it’s God’s duty to save him and restore his fortunes (e.g. Pss 6 and 12/13, but there are lots of examples).

black and white like the sheep
Confidence in virtue

This goes along with an enviable confidence in the psalmist’s own goodness. He keeps telling us that his foot has not stumbled, that he has not forsaken God’s ways (‘ever’, or ‘since my youth’).  ‘I have never neglected his commands./ I have always been upright before him;/I have kept myself from guilt’ (Ps 17/18).  He has found all his pleasure in knowing God’s laws, and following them. He can indeed be a little irritating, and we are happy to come across the rare psalm (e.g.Ps 24/25) where he admits that maybe things have been difficult, though, nearly always, the difficulties he has encountered or is worrying about are coming on him from outside (enemies, extreme weather events, illness). His confidence clearly lies in himself as well as in God.

Just men : Abel and Abraham, just like me?
Uncomfortable words

This can lead to difficulties for the modern reader/singer of the psalms.  People express discomfort over the revenge verses, and they are often left out when the Church prescribes the psalms for liturgical use (e.g. the last verse of Psalm 136/137, the psalm I called ‘one of the best song lyrics ever‘, but it ends with that terrible line about ‘dashing your babies against the rock’).  People agonise about whether verses like this should even be allowed in the Bible, whether they should be edited out; but if this is God’s word, do we have a right to leave bits out?  We insist upon context, we stress the difference between the Old Testament and the New, but the words are there in the canon.

soldiers pillaging house
Dreadful things that war can lead to
Overweening confidence…..

However, we can also feel very uncomfortable singing the smug psalms or declaring how perfect we are in the sight of God.  There are psalms which talk about the psalmist’s/our failings, but they are outnumbered by the ones which stress our virtue.  The distance between what we are singing and what we know to be true gives us pause.  It does not seem to worry the psalmist.  Why not?

…and what it’s based on

I think there are various reasons for this.  The original Jewish covenant is based on a system of rules.  If you obey the rules in the Book, you are a just man and God will favour you (Ps 118/119, at great length).  If you are a son of the covenant (shown by circumcision), then the rules apply to you, and you must keep them (this is why Paul goes round and round the same arguments in Romans about how the covenant brings sin, because it sets the rules and people then break them).  If there aren’t any rules, then you can’t transgress them (you can see how this might lead to trouble).  What you are thinking does not matter so much as your observance of the rules.   Motive is not so important; the Bible is totally pre-Freudian.

Another element is that when the psalmist talks about how good he is, it’s partly aspiration and ‘a firm purpose of amendment’, as we used to say.  He’s looking forwards not backwards, and giving himself the benefit of the doubt, as we all do (Ps 100/101).  We don’t have definite dates for any of the psalms, but it’s a fair bet that mostly the psalmist is living in a society where, even if he’s not actually a slave, there are lots of other powerful people around with differing world views, and the psalmist is quite convinced that he and his people are the good guys in the narrative (Ps 78/79 is a good example).

Autres Testaments, autres moeurs

But we are looking at all this through a Christian prism.  We are supposed to be worrying about what is in our heart, and loving our enemies.  We are aware that Jesus demands perfection (Mtt 5. 48), and with him as our example, we cannot help but be aware how far we fall short.  Sometimes he does this overtly (‘…but I say to you’ six times in the Sermon on the Mount, Mtt 5), but he’s often much more subtle.

Jesus talking with woman at the well
Jesus talking and listening
Parables and the sideways look

Parables are a very subtle way of teaching, and Jesus seems to have enjoyed using them.  When you speak a parable, you’re telling a story, a very attractive and in-bringing way of talking to an audience, and you have the opportunity to influence the way your audience will receive the story, through clever techniques like shifting the point of view.

The Prodigal Son : three viewpoints

Take the Prodigal Son as an example (Luke 15).  The story starts off totally identified with the prodigal.  We see his frustration at home, his arrogant request for his share of the money to use for his own benefit.  Here’s a man who is totally confident in his own abilities.  He wallows in delight and fleshpots.   Then come debt and famine.  We feel his hunger and disgust as he feeds the pigs and wishes he could eat as easily as they do, then his coming to his senses and repentance.  He sets off for home; – and our viewpoint shifts: now we are waiting with the father, equally hungry for a sight of his son, and over the moon with delight as he hoves into view.  The father doesn’t wait for him to arrive and apologise, he rushes out to meet him.  Now our viewpoint shifts again, to the older son, who is full of resentment and jealousy when he sees how welcoming his father is to this unsatisfactory little brother.  The Prodigal Son, main character and eponymous hero, isn’t even on stage (he’s taking a much-needed bath) for the last part of the story, the conversation between the father and the elder son.

Jesus finishes the parable, and naturally we ask ourselves which of the protagonists we are.  It’s not easy or straightforward.   Three sections, three viewpoints.  The prodigal has broken the rules; the elder son has kept them, but he’s not the confident ‘just man’ we see so often in the Psalms.   The father behaves like God, with stunning generosity and love, so we aspire,  but don’t identify.   Jesus’ point is surely that what matters is what is in people’s hearts, not just rule-keeping.

Everybody is here in this picture except the pigs
The Good Samaritan

Similarly with the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), there are various roles, and we get to choose which one we would play.  The Levite and the priest keep to the letter of the Law and avoid pollution; but the despised Samaritan has a good heart and behaves accordingly.  Jesus turns the question of who is doing the right thing (behaving as a ‘neighbour’) back on the questioner.  He answers by a circumlocution because he doesn’t want to criticise the Levite and the priest, still less admit that a Samaritan might be the hero of the story; but the point is made.

(I love these pictures which tell the whole story at once)

The same thing occurs in other parables where there are several characters.  Sometimes it can even be confusing (the man without the wedding garment who gets into trouble at the banquet he is invited to at short notice, Mtt 22), but I think Jesus is deliberately using this sideways look to keep us slightly unsure, so that we pay attention.

The need to pay attention

The Lord’s technique is incredibly skilful.  The truths he is offering us about ourselves are not particularly palatable, and it would be very easy to alienate the listener immediately.  A very wise priest of my acquaintance always says, ‘Christ did not come to save us from sin, because that would have been a total failure.  He came to save us from ourselves.’  As it was, many people found Jesus’ message impossible to accept, and the rich young man goes away sorrowing (Mtt. 19.22, Mk 10.22).  But parables give Jesus a way to engage people with the story and possibly only later think about the implications.  We see this happening when the apostles get him to themselves and ask more questions, as in Luke 8.9.  Repeatedly he asks people to pay attention (all the remarks about having ears), and it’s always worth dwelling on what he actually says, as there is invariably more to it than we catch at first (I think this is why so many people find Lectio divina works for them).  Mary at Bethany is commended because she is concentrating on nothing except what Jesus is saying.

Not anointing feet, just listening
Sure foundations and over-confidence

Human nature means that the promise of salvation leads very easily to smugness and over-confidence.  This is why Jesus constantly keeps us just off-balance in what he says.  Even in the Our Father we see this technique in operation.  We start with praise and (literally) pious hopes.  But there are two cunning phrases in the text.  ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven‘ – who is supposed to be actually doing it on earth?  Er, we are, and as beautifully and efficiently as the angels do their job in heaven.  Similarly later on : ‘forgive us our trespasses’, which we can all pray knowing how much we need it,’as we forgive those who trespass against us‘.  It always surprises me that we don’t pause or go a bit quieter at that bit.

The Responsorial Psalm comes after the Old Testament reading for a good reason.  It reflects a simpler response to a simpler world view.  The psalmist’s confidence can be very comforting, but we have to be aware that Jesus’ harshest words are for those who become too confident and complacent.  We need to strike a balance, so that we are not troubled by anxiety, but play the part that God needs us to play.

There is an old paradox, attributed to St Augustine, Saint Ignatius and John Wesley  (I haven’t yet seen it attributed to Disraeli or Oscar Wilde), which I think probably sums it up best.  ‘Act as though everything depends on you; pray as though everything depends on God.’  If that is our attitude, then we can confidently say with the psalmist, ‘in my justice, I shall see your face’ (Ps 16/17) and rest on God’s lap like ‘a weaned child on its mother’s breast’ (Ps 130/131).  This is a confidence that will never let us down: ‘The Lord protects the simple hearts;/ I was helpless so he saved me’ (Ps 114/115).


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs about the Synod, family life and women in the Church for The Tablet.

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