Sr. Irene Nowell wrote her doctoral dissertation on the psalms of the Lectionary for Sunday Mass. It is her contention that of the four Scripture readings that we encounter on any given Sunday, only one of them is a prayer; namely, the responsorial psalm. Consequently, she focuses her attention on the responsorial psalm and uses it as a window through which she accesses the other three readings.
“Teach me your ways, O Lord.” Psalm 25, the psalm that is used as a response to the readings for this Sunday, focuses our attention on “God’s way.” The word “way” is just a trifle ambiguous. Does it refer to a path or highway, a specific road that we are to travel? Another possible way to look at it might be to act in the way that God would act. The problem with this second possible understanding is that it is oftentimes nigh onto impossible for us to determine how God would act.
If we look a little more closely at the language of Psalm 25, we find that it is filled with words that are taken right out of the language of the Sinai Covenant sealed between God and the children of Israel, a covenant that was mediated by Moses. That covenant is defined by the words “compassion,” “loving kindness,” “righteousness,” “goodness,” and “upright justice.”
We are also given some examples in today’s Scriptures that help us to determine what the psalm is asking of us. The first example is that of Jonah, a man called to be a prophet but who tried to run away from that responsibility. One could possible understand Jonah’s reticence if he merely thought himself not up to the task. However, careful reading of the rest of the Book of Jonah reveals a man who ran away not because of doubt about his effectiveness. Rather he simply did not want God to show mercy to the citizens of Nineveh. They were his sworn enemies. Rather than run the risk that they might listen and turn to God, he decided not to deliver God’s warnings. When he was forced to do so and Nineveh repented, Jonah says, ““O LORD, is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled at first toward Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of punishment. So now, LORD, please take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.” It is not difficult to see how his behavior and attitude don’t resemble God’s ways. He would rather die than save his enemies.
We also have the example of Jesus and his disciples in the Gospel this morning. Jesus waits until after John is arrested to begin his public ministry. To begin preaching any earlier would have been dishonorable and would have brought shame upon both John and Jesus. When he does begin preaching, he uses the same words as John, another example of acting honorably, thereby ratifying John’s message as the message of God. Then Jesus calls his first disciples. They too follow God’s way by answering the call.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul exhorts them to walk in God’s ways. They are to act as if Jesus’ return is imminent. For these people, it meant something different than it does for us, and yet it also is similar at the same time. Yes, they believed that Jesus would return almost immediately. We know that it didn’t happen that way. However, we believe that it will happen. Those who wish to be ready should be walking in the ways of God, putting aside the concerns of the secular society. The words of the Sinai Covenant are just as relevant for us as they were for the Israelites. We are to be people of compassion, of loving kindness, of justice, of righteousness, and of goodness. God’s word is not something from which we can run away.
To some this might seem a rather obvious responsibility and a simplistic application of these Sunday readings. However, I would be quick to point out that these attitudes and behaviors are rather obvious in their absence in our current society. Consequently the urgency of today’s message cannot be ignored. We have been taught the Lord’s ways through the example of Jesus. It is now ours to take what we have been taught and put it into action.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.