Jeremiah 11:18–20 | Psalm 7:6–11 | John 7:37–52
We got off pretty light this morning in terms of the Eucharistic psalm. It is certainly no secret to this group that the Psalms as a whole are chocked full of anger, vengeance, revenge, reviling, gloating and condemnation. If we had continued on with Psalm 7 we would have read, “If they will not repent, God will whet his sword; he will bend his bow and make it ready. He has prepared his weapons of death; he makes his arrows shafts of fire.
Nor are the prophets free of such language and sentiments. Today in Jeremiah we get of east with only, “But you, O Lord of hosts, who judge righteously, who try the heart and the mind, let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. And this is not to say that this kind of talk and motive is found only in the Hebrew Bible. The Christian Testament has its share of eternal damnation whose fires are never quenched in which, it is said, God is content to burn the chaff of humankind.
What to do with such passages of Scripture and why read them at all. I must admit that when crop up in the Eucharistic lectionary, I can do some pretty fancy footwork, rhetorically speaking, to dwell on and develop other lines of thought and edification. But the Psalms, the Psalms, oh my goodness, how full they are of such talk.
One way to approach the Psalms is to follow Shakespeare’s lead found in the words of Hamlet the Prince, who may well be speaking for the poet when he says to the troupe of players whom he has commissioned to perform for the court. He says to them,
the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure. [Hamlet, III, ii]
Hamlet says, that is, that the function of drama, and by extension of all art, is to hold the mirror up to nature, by which he means human nature, so that it can see itself in a way not otherwise likely to occur. So in reading the Psalms with all their variety of human motives, both noble and commendable and ignoble and petty, it is ourselves that we may see reflected there. None of us is free of those desires for revenge, though we might call it poetic justice, of the desire for misfortune to befall the guilty and punishment to reign down on the guilty. It they repel us there, then it is more likely that we can identify and be similarly repelled by such things in our own hearts. The logs we see in the eyes of the Psalmist may be specks in our own eyes, but speck they are nonetheless and they distort and cloud our ethical vision.
Much, therefore, of the Scriptures can be considered negative examples; so it is seems good to me when we encounter the positive examples, especially in places where they might not be expected to be found. Such a positive example for us today is Nicodemus. John’s Gospel is notorious for the anti-semitic, anti- Pharisaic abuses it has be used to perpetrate and justify. The truth is amid much mention, and, yes, condemnation of “the Jews,” there are also very positive, kind and noble Jewish believers in John’s Gospel. A good source for this is the excellent book, Befriending The Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John in which the author Adele Reinhartz examines the book to see if she can indeed make friends with its author and text. In her reading of the text she finds many positive motives and actions of Jewish characters who are not followers of Jesus. Though she is ultimately not able to become John the Evangelist’s trusting friend, she nonetheless concedes that there are positive examples there. One such example is Nicodemus whom we hear of this morning.
We first encounter Nicodemus as a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews who come famously to Jesus by night. Though he doesn’t come off very well in his grasp of Jesus’s subtlety and ironic use of language, his inquiry seems sincere and, though criticized, he is not treated in any way with contempt. It is no small thing that it is he whom prompts perhaps the most favorite of biblical quotations, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” For that alone we owe him a debt of gratitude.
The next we hear of him is the passage we have today. While others are looking for a way, any way it seems, to trump up charges, Nicodemus insists on obeying the law. For his trouble he is even accused of being a closet-Galilean like Jesus. While anathema to the Pharasaic audience, this is perhaps a compliment in the eyes of the Evangelist John’s hearers. And then finally, it is Nicodemus who joins with Joseph of Arimathea to provide Jesus with as proper and dignified a burial as can be managed under the circumstances of his death. To do so he lavishes an extravagantly large and costly amount of myrrh and aloes with which to enshroud Jesus’s body for burial.
Somewhat on the perimeter of John’s narrative, Nicodemus makes a familiar journey from inquirer, to sympathizer and defender, to compassionate friend and loyal companion even in death.
In a book perhaps too full of over-generalized deprecations of the Jewish people of Jerusalem, Nicodemus stands out as a counter example and as a reminder that it has not been John the Evangelist’s intention to indict an entire race, people and nation – a lesson the church and history would have been well served to appreciate long before now. And a lesson that continues to make looking with honesty into the mirror of the psalms to find and see the possibility of the soul’s meanness there as essential as ever.
Look down in mercy, Lord, on your people who kneel before you; and grant that those whom you have nourished by your Word and Sacraments may bring forth fruit worthy of repentance; through Christ our Lord. Amen.