Psalm 73: When good things happen to bad people

Sermon delivered at Raysville Friends Church

Reading: Psalm 73

Psalm 73 is labeled as a Psalm of Asaph, and it is the first psalm of a section of Psalms that are labeled the same way. Asaph was the cantor for the Tabernacle during the time of David — and the cantors in the Temple were male-line descendants of Asaph. The people who sung those things that were meant to be heard were the Asaphites.

I don’t know whether Asaph wrote or collected these Psalms — but, what I do know is that they were here for the purpose of being heard. Psalms is the hymnal of the people of Israel: some of the later copies have as many as 160 Psalms. As the Psalms is an anthology — a hymnal, if you like, we can be pretty sure that there was something before the Psalms were put together after the exile. I tend to think that the Psalms of Asaph were copied from that older hymnal.

We sing our theology — and this was obviously meant to be heard publicly. I find it remarkable that the Psalms of Asaph do not start with something that is easy — no, the Psalmist starts by asking one of the questions that bother people when they think of theology: “Is God fair?” There are two very similar questions that people have always struggled with: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, and as this Psalm asks, “Why do good things happen to bad people.”

To be fair this question is asked many times, and in many ways. I imagine all of us have opportunities to spend time with children. I know I remember being a child, and some of the things that seemed so important then. Fairness is a concept that it seems like all children get. There is a real feeling that things need to be fair, and a frustration when they are not. Eventually, we are forced to accept that often things are not fair, but, as an adult, I still don’t like this.

Psalm 73 is not the only part of scripture that talks about God and fairness. Job is a difficult passage to read, because it is clearly unfair — and God makes no attempt to apologize for this. One thing Job makes abundantly clear is that when we suggest that we get what we deserve, we are mistaken. Just because bad things happen, the person who suffers is not necessarily condemned… if only we could remember this lesson and have compassion! The converse is also mentioned — just because somebody is prospering does not mean that person is good. Lady luck is fickle, and she does not favor people based on how deserving they are.

One of my favorite books is Ecclesiastes — it also deals with the issue of unfairness, giving the rather simple answer that it does not matter whether we are rich, or poor, or successful, or if it is fair — because we are all going to die very soon anyways — and, we’re dead for a real long time; a long time where none of this stuff really matters. I guess I enjoy what Bible scholars call ‘Wisdom Literature” because I was one of those teenagers who wrote depressing poetry for fun.

The best advice, however, is that that came from Jesus. It is advice that I used with the children in my life. Sometimes the kids I spend time with seem to compete to see who can act the worst. When I scold one of them, he responds by telling me that one of the other boys was behaving even more badly — so I should ignore his behavior and focus on the worst kid. While I understand his sense of fairness, I am perfectly aware that he earned much more than a scolding with his own behavior.

What I tell him is that he shouldn’t be worried about the person who’s behaving worse than he is — he should be concerned with himself, and his own behavior. Just because his behavior is not the worst of his peer group does not excuse his bad behavior. Even if he were the best behaved kid in the room (which, if he were, he would not have been lectured) other people’s behavior does not excuse his own. The question: “what about him” is the wrong question.

When we study John, eventually we will get to the passage where Jesus and Peter have a heart to heart after the Resurrection. Peter, for some reason, keeps asking: `but what about him’. Jesus always gives the same answer — don’t worry about him, follow me.

This Psalm really gets to the heart of this matter. It begins with observing that God is good, then points to the real problem: I am envious of the person who seems to have everything even though he’s bad. When I see somebody who is less deserving than I am, yet that person seems to have everything, is it any surprise when I am envious? This feeling of envy ranges from envy for worthless bosses, who have no idea how to do any job they ever had with the company — but, are very skilled at playing politics to get promotions and using people… to envying colleagues in ministry who seem to have it ‘better’ than I do, in spite of, or even because of a lack of ethical integrity. Yes, I know the feeling behind this Psalm, I think all of us do.

But here is the point, when I am angry, and say it is not fair because somebody I judge as less deserving than I seems to be more blessed then I am — this is all on me: Ok — almost everybody has a functioning sociopath above them in a power structure. I have no intention of excusing them, or their behavior, nor advising people to enable their behavior… but instead to say I need to be responsible for myself — not to worry that somebody else gets more than his due, but instead follow Jesus.

If I am jealous of someone, and tell myself a story about how that someone does not deserve his or her recognition — I’m telling myself a story. Yes, I can know a few details, but most of the story is unknown to me. There is a big difference from saying: “That person throws people under the bus, I need to protect myself”, and saying: “I’m better than that person — I’ve produced more value than that person, it is unfair that he is more highly honored than I am.” The truth is, just as likely, that I am not aware of the whole story and I am justifying my envy. No matter whether I’m right or wrong, envy is a pernicious sin — especially if I’m making an opponent out of somebody who should be my ally.  Not only does envy damage relationships, but it also destroys joy.  Counting somebody else’s blessings out of envy is an effective way to feel miserable.

Of course, the Psalm itself reminds us that we have nothing to be envious of. The sociopaths among us have one very hard thing in their lives that we don’t have — they can never get away from themselves. The Psalmist says that he understood their end, entering God’s sanctuary — that God set them on a slippery path, cast down to destruction in a moment.

The poor manager who advanced by treating his co-workers as rungs on the ladder to success has nobody to stand up for him when he is held accountable. Eventually, throwing people under the bus isn’t good enough; he will need somebody to stand up for him. We all have times we fall, and need a friend to pick us up — and, when these times come, a person who has managed his life so that every relationship is about the value he can get out of it — that person will find that there is no friends left to help when help is needed. I know many readers of this Psalm see that there will be hell to pay; and they are very likely right, but even if that were not true, the wicked often create their own earthly downfall as they believe they are prospering.

The advice of this Psalm is to draw near to God, and put our trust in God. The declaration that this Psalm starts with is: “God is truly good to those who are pure in heart.” We all need to remember this advice. If I count my blessings, I see that somebody else might be able to envy me. I have blessings in my life that I could not imagine trading for anything. Why should I envy somebody that I would regret trading places with? I am clearly much happier if I count my blessings, as opposed to counting the apparent blessings that somebody else has, and I do not.

I will end with the final words of the Psalm — and a much better way than worrying about whether or not what everybody else gets is `fair’: “I have put my trust in the Lord, that I may declare all your works.”

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