Evensong 24 February: What Must I do to Inherit the Land?

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Tonight I will pick up on the central theme in the psalm we have just heard, Psalm 37,  which is the idea of a Godly inheritance and of God as a cosmic restorer of this inheritance.

I’m also going to ask the question to what extent does this Psalm articulate a vision concerned with the end of times?

Is there a tension between the cause and effect, righteousness and victory argument that the Psalm makes and the idea that the ultimate order of things is necessarily deferred.

How does our understanding of Eucharist, and by extension tonight’s Benediction, relate to this idea of the end of times?

A Godly Inheritance and a Cosmic Restorer

In the NRSV English translation of Psalm 37 the word “Land” is used six times, and all but once in the context of the phrase “Inherit the Land”.

We are familiar, in the New Testament, with the idea of a spiritualised inheritance that God assures His people.

In Luke 18 a rich man asks Jesus “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus responds by saying that the rich man must give away riches and follow God’s commandments, and that by doing so he is assured at least the possibility of entering the Kingdom of the God.

In Psalm 37 the faithful are repeatedly told not to envy the material success of the wicked nor fret or lose faith.

The psalm says that the wicked will be cut off, that in a little while they will be no more. Meanwhile, those that trust in the Lord and do good will inherit the Land and enjoy security.

While the context of inheritance differs between Luke and Psalm 37, what remains the same is the idea that God glorifies Himself not only in lived social reality but also in what might and will be.

God’s promises are not empty but assured. God will restore to the righteous what has been lost or stolen. Because of their trust in the Lord, the righteous are not envious. They know that the greed of the rich, including their appropriating land and other resources, perhaps unlawfully, cannot prevail. God’s final justice is assured.

As the psalm says “The Lord knows the days of the blameless, and their heritage will abide forever”.

The righteous are exhorted to be patient and trust God’s assurances that lawlessness will not prevail. Psalm 37 goes so far as to assert that the children of the righteous will not, in the end, be reduced to poverty.

At this point, one might be tempted to take issue with the quid pro quo economy that the psalm seems to suggest.

Clearly, the actual economy of the world, as distinct to the economy of faith, is considerably messier. Good people do in fact live in poverty and the righteous are forsaken. The world is currently wicked. And God’s promises and assurances, while powerful, are yet to be realised.

How do we understand this tension between the assertion that the righteous will not see poverty and ultimate destruction and the reality that we experience? How are we meant to understand the disparity between what the psalm asserts and what we experience in our lives?

I think the statement “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” isn’t so much a statement of fact as it relates to our lived social reality, as a statement of faith in God’s ultimate justice.

God has ordained that the waiting, righteous ones will ultimately have the land that is rightly theirs. God has ordained that the waiting, righteous ones will ultimately enjoy security and a lasting heritage. This is true even in the face of misfortunate and chaos because God’s economy is ultimate and final. The order of justice, absent in the here and now, will undoubtedly come to pass in the future.

Eschatological vision

Because of this idea of deferred or ultimate justice, some have called Psalm 37 eschatological, that is, concerned with the end of times.

Walter Brugemann is cautious about this reading because he argues it detracts from the socio-economic force of the Psalm.

Brugemann argues that the hope that underpins Psalm 37 is that God will ultimately restore a relationship of unity between the righteous and the Land and that this unity will be fundamentally socio-economic as well as spiritual.

I agree with Brugemann that the hope of this Psalm is partly embedded in the social and therefore in just socio-economic outcomes.

But I also think, imperfect a lens as it may be, that we can’t discount that this Psalm refers to an order of things that is Utopian and concerned with a reality that isn’t this reality.

Given we are about to experience the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament it seems appropriate to speak about the restoration of the Land to the righteous in terms of the Christ’s restoration of the Kingdom to his people.

There is indeed a social element to this if we take seriously the idea, espoused repeatedly throughout the Gospels, that Christ will restore justice to the poor like the returning Landlord; that one day the Land--and all its fruits--will be restored to the poor.

But there’s also something else at work here, in our understanding of Christ’s role at the end of times. As Christians we are fundamentally a community of expectant people. Christ has ascended into Heaven but will return again.

We are redeemed by His broken body but await his coming again in glory to restore all creation to His image. Only when this restoration occurs will the justice referred to in Psalm 37 be perfect and complete. On then will the righteous truly inherit the Land and be secure.

And how does this yearning for the inheritance of God relate to our understanding of the Eucharist that we are about encounter through Benediction?

At the institution of the Eucharist Jesus presents his body, broken among the disciples, as a foretaste of the Land that the righteous will inherit with security. Clearly, the Eucharist isn’t quite the same thing as Jesus coming among us when he returns to earth. Now we wait. Then we won’t be waiting because the Bridegroom has returned.

What the Eucharist achieves, as we await the deferred justice of the here and now, is a means by which Jesus is fully, physically present under the appearance of bread and wine.

It is in the Blessed Sacrament where, to use a paraphrase of the psalmic language, we inherit the Land and enjoy security.

Alae Taule'alo