The Psalm sounds … nice. It sounds… basic. Yes, yes, trusting God is good, it makes you stronger. Yes, sure, God is with us. Bleh, bleh, bleh. God is for good people and God should protect good people from bad people.
It doesn’t seem particularly unique. That is, until one reads it in context. Psalm 125 is believed to be written AFTER the destruction of Jerusalem, which involved the utter destruction of the Temple, and the forced march of the Jewish leaders to slavery in Babylon. That fact alone makes it SUPER interesting, and eliminates the seeming niceness.
Verse 1 says, “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.” As one scholar, Patricia D. Ahearne-Kroll of Ohio Wesleyan, puts it:
“The notion of ‘Zion’ in ancient Israelite literature signifies more than a particular location (i.e. Jerusalem). It always relates to the temple in Jerusalem, which was built at the highest point in the city and was sometimes referred to as the ‘mountain’ or ‘mount’ of YHWH. In the ancient world, temples were not utilized like places of worship today; temples primarily housed the presence of particular deities. Rituals were preformed in temple complexes, but they usually did not incorporate a congregation. Priests would administer these rituals to maintain the sacredness of the space so that the presence of the Divine would remain and the advantages associated with that Deity would be sustained. One of these advantages was the perceived protection of the region by the god or goddess who was worshipped.”1
The people understood Zion to be the temple complex, and the understood it to be unbreakable. Zion was protected by God. Zion’s power and God’s power were, essentially, the same. As Dr. Ahearne-Kroll puts it, “The concept of Zion, therefore, conveys the inviolability of Jerusalem; because God’s presence resided in the temple, Jerusalem would never fail.”2 Thus, it is a big deal to make such a statement about Zion AFTER Zion has fallen.
If your faith said that God would never let the Temple that held God’s presence falter; and then the Temple was destroyed; it would now mean very different things to speak of that Temple at Zion. And the Psalmist says that those who trust in God are like the impenetrable Mount Zion which abides forever, except that it mostly DIDN’T when the Psalmist wrote it.
Right before we formed the Upper New York Annual Conference, we had the final sessions of our former Annual Conferences. After the final blessing was given in Scranton, PA, a voice shouted out “The Wyoming Annual Conference is dead! Long live the Wyoming Annual Conference!” Those words have been playing in my ears in the years since. At first I thought it was silly, those words make sense when one king has died and another has been crowned, but the Wyoming Conference was gone for good. Yet, the hope and faith I learned in the Wyoming Conference still live on in me, and I believe in the world. In my years here, I have learned that the Troy Annual Conference also lives on in her people, and in their faith and hope.
It is weak, I admit that, but the feeling I had when my Annual Conference died (which, for me as a pastor, was my church), is the closest thing I can find for understanding what the Psalmist was saying about Mount Zion abiding forever. Even though what they had known was gone, even though the gone-ness of their Holy Space was a violation of how they knew God, they held firm to their faith in God. They even, intentionally, used the metaphor of the holy space that had been destroyed before their eyes as proof of God’s goodness and permanence!
The Psalmist is so bold as to say, “those who trust in God are like the unbreakable Mount Zion” because the promise and faith of Zion lived on, even when the Temple stood in ruins. Even though the physical could be destroyed, the faith it build and the faith that was practiced there could not. So, even in its own destruction, the Temple Mount served as a metaphor for the eternal. Maybe for those whose lives and livelihoods had been destroyed, only a symbol that had known destruction could be the right symbol of faith.
Nevertheless, I hold that it is radical and profound to stake the claim, “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time on and forevermore.” The rest of the Psalm is a bit more honest. That’s good too. The Psalmist wishes for God to act, to kick out the oppressing force and all those who collaborated with it. The Psalmist, it seems, wishes for God to act to reestablish the impenetrability of Zion. The Psalmist wants things to be as they should be, and not as they are, and asks God to make things right again.
That’s where our two scriptures collide. James ALSO wants things to be made right again, and not to be as they are, but he thinks it is the job of the followers of Christ to make it so. James sees a problem in the community of Christ-followers, that they treat people with different means with different levels of respect. There does seem to be a little bit more going on in his narrative than what we, as moderns, initially hear in it.
The one presented as a rich man is said to be wearing a gold ring and fine clothes. That likely indicates that he was either a noble or a senator in the Roman Empire, AND that he was running for office. Thus, as one scholar says, “it would be apparent to the readers that the rich man under discussion was a representative of the aristocracy and that his connection with the Christians was supposed to be beneficial to both groups.”3
Dr. Elza Tamez, professor of theology at Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica, says that there are two words used for “the poor” in Biblical Greek, “The poor were the ptōchoi, a Greek term designating those who totally lacked the means of subsistence and lived from alms; they were the beggars.”4 The other word was for poor people who had no land but did have a job. The word used in James for the poor person who enters the worshiping assembly is ptōchoi.
Thus, James’s objection is stronger than it initially appears. It isn’t just, “don’t treat rich people nicer than poor ones” although it is that. It goes a step further, “Don’t treat important people who can help your community better than you treat those who can’t afford to eat today.”
This is not the easiest teaching in the Bible, although it is fairly core. The Hebrew Bible obsesses over the treatment of the poor, particularly the most vulnerable poor. Jesus continues that tradition by engaging with and empowering people living in poverty and hopelessness. James says that God has a preference for the poor, and wants the people who follow Jesus to have that same preference. Some scholars point out that James does not condemn the rich one, or at least he does not do so inherently. Rather he condemns preferential treatment for the wealthy and powerful. He doesn’t say that the wealthy man is unwelcome, simply that he shouldn’t be treated better because he is wealthy.
James says this violates both the values of Christ and practicalities. Wealthy people were regularly oppressing the impoverished people who were the majority in the early Christian communities. The values of God and of Christ are not at all reflective of the values of material possession. The world tends to give more power to those who already have power and wealth, but that’s not how God would have it be. God who loves all of the people wants to lift up the lowly so that all have what they need to survive and thrive! Christians who are trying to build the kindom need to let go of the materialistic values of society and see people with God’s love and values!
That being said, it is much easier to say than do. The assumption that the wealthy man was likely very powerful and a possible protector of vulnerable people fits well into the challenges of living as Jesus lived. It is difficult to forego protections, particularly when you need them. It is ill-advised to anger a powerful person when their power means they can do you harm. It is much easier to fold, to give deference, to offer your chair.
It is easy to forget that when we offer deference to one who has more power, money, or influence we are inherently devaluing the one who lacks power, money, or influence. In those early house churches there wasn’t all that much room – they were in houses after all! Making space for someone meant crowding everyone else. And, as James said, it meant saying to the one who was already most vulnerable, “you can sit on the floor at my feet.”
I can’t read this passage without feeling convicted for all of the ways I fail to follow in the way of Jesus. I truly believe that God calls us to love each other – ALL of each other – with the love God has for each person. Yet, I notice ways that my treatments of people are different. I am not yet able to ignore all the ways that culture trains me to see, hear, and respond to people. (Here is hoping John Wesley is right and I’m moving on to perfection.)
Yet, I think James may know that he is asking something of people that is good to yearn for and VERY difficult to live. I think that because he goes on to talk about mercy. He encourages people to show mercy, so that they might receive mercy; assuming that they need mercy in cases like inappropriately showing partiality. It is, in fact, all tied up together. As one scholar says, “Favoritism emulated, not the law, but the oppressive measures of the rich who do not show mercy. The polar opposite of favoritism is mercy.”5
Mercy is “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.”6 It is power over another that is not used, and instead grace abounds. The opposite of favoritism is mercy. Failing to show mercy is oppression. Mercy is the opposite of partiality. Isn’t that an interesting thought? Mercy, compassion towards someone you have power over – like a poor person entering a space where you belong.
May we move onto perfection. May we find the ways to eliminate partiality from our words and actions. And, in the meantime, may we show mercy. It will help make things right, and we yearn for things to be right. Amen
1 Patricia D. Ahearne-Kroll, “Exegetical Perspective on Psalm 125” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 33.
2 Ahearne-Kroll, 35.
3 Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James Peter and Jude in the Anchor Bible Series, ed. William Foxwell Abright and David Noel Freedman (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1964), 27.
4 Elza Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002), 19.
5 Aaron L. Uitti, “Exegetical Perspective on James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17” n Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 43.
6 Apple Dictionary, “mercy” accessed 9/7/2018.