Along the Road to Perfection: Reflections on Psalm 119 #3 (Gimel)

The Psalmist has described the horizon of the journey for us as a sort of “completeness” of love and obedience in God (vv1-8), and he shown us how the “substance” of that journey – the “in what does it consist” of it – is an unbroken delight in and attention to the very “word” of God… a “word” that comes from the interiority of God-self, addressed to the interiority of the human “self”.  The next leg of the journey commences, each line beginning with the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet, gimel:

17 Do good to your servant, and I will live;
I will obey your word.
18 Open my eyes that I may see
wonderful things in your law.
19 I am a stranger on earth;
do not hide your commands from me.
20 My soul is consumed with longing
for your laws at all times.
21 You rebuke the arrogant, who are cursed
and who stray from your commands.
22 Remove from me scorn and contempt,
for I keep your statutes.
23 Though rulers sit together and slander me,
your servant will meditate on your decrees.
24 Your statutes are my delight;
they are my counselors.

Up to this point, the main characters in the plot have been the Psalmist, his God, and that God’s speech to him.  Now for the first time, a new character steps onto the stage – what we might broadly call “the world.”  And what the Psalmist senses, deep down in his bones, is that his commitment to the “word” of God, as manifest in Yahweh’s “Torah” (his “law”, or more literally, his “instruction), does something to him… it makes him something… the first words of verse nineteen spell it out:

ger anochi va-aretz

Literally:

(a) stranger/sojourner (am) I in the land

Disciples know that commitment to Yahweh and his way makes them “odd”.  Torah roots them in another reality and hence marks them out as different.  The Psalmist knows it.  He feels it in the core of his being.  He is a passer-through… a “stranger”… a “sojourner”… in a fundamental way, he does not belong.  He is an “alien.”  And he is treated for the most part as such.  He is often scorned and vilified; misunderstood and rejected; slandered and spoken negatively of.

And yet…

Something beautiful happens because of this.  He draws nearer to God.  The “oddness”, which he experiences both WITHIN himself (in the form of awkwardness) and FROM OUTSIDE OF himself (in the form of rejection of various kinds) pushes him to find his “home” more and more not in the “aretz” – the land – but rather in Yahweh.  He is learning to make Yahweh his “portion”.  “Though rulers sit together and slander me, your servant will meditate on your decrees” (v23).

He is an expatriate longing for the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of home.  And he knows that this place is not it.

You are odd, friend.  And the sooner you come to grips with it, the better off you’ll be.  An enormous part of the journey towards moral and spiritual perfection is learning a certain comfort-level with our basic “strangeness”… becoming friendly with “oddness”, experiencing ourselves as strangers and learning to be okay with it.

But that is where the rub lies.  At a core level, what it means to be human is to be connected to others.  When we meet people on the bus or plane, something within us longs to strike up a conversation, finding common ground.  Why do we do that?  Because we want to feel connected.  It is part of our humanness.

Which is why we experience rejection as such a threat.  On some deep, existential level, it feels like negation. Like we’re being thrust into some outer darkness… a void… and we a-void “voidness” at all costs.

We need to face that fear, for the truth of the matter is twofold:

  1. We’ll never be able to help the world unless we first learn to stand apart from it
  2. To claim our “oddness” as a basic part of our identity is emphatically NOT negation, for it thrusts us into deeper communion with the One who is the very source and ground of all “being” – namely, God.

Communion with God is the only way we’ll ever attain enough creative distance to speak a critical and liberating word to a world that is hopelessly confused.  How can we say “no” to the pathologies of our day unless we’ve learned to say “yes” to the Goodness of God?  The “no” and the “yes” are all bound up together.  As Karl Barth once beautifully put it, “In his ‘no’ God utters his ‘yes’…”

We might say that the reverse is true for disciples, that “In our ‘yes’ to God we also utter our ‘no’ to the world”… a “no” that paradoxically also turns out to be a “yes”, for our very existence will be to the world that “word” that calls the world to be what God intends for it to be.

As Jesus put it: “You are the light of the world.”

Only when we claim our oddness.

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