Today we begin our meditation on Psalm 26, using it to explore central themes in all of the Psalms.
The very first words of our Psalm are “Judge me.” It’s not a place we want to go. In the second stanza it continues, “probe me and test me, burn the dross from my inmost parts.” (Throughout this series I will be making my own translations, from the various Latin versions, the Greek, and the Hebrew; I will not be consistent.) We are inclined to say, no thank you. We know he will find a lot of impurities there.
Most Christians, Catholic and Protestant, think the great good news is that mercy has triumphed over judgment. We don’t want to be judged. So it is surprising to find that judgment is a constant call of the Psalms. Surprising, too, if you actually read the New Testament, to find that there even more, judgment plays a pretty central role.
What is going on? What has happened to mercy?
First, notice how this whole first stanza goes. “Judge me, oh Lord, for I have walked in innocence; and trusting in God, I have not fallen away.” In fact, there are two sides to this, combining mercy and justice in a way that exceeds our expectations.
On the one hand, there is the claim of innocence. Yes, the Psalmist dares to say, “Judge me, oh Lord, for I am innocent.” This is a claim about himself. Indeed, by making it “I have walked in innocence,” he makes it even more concrete. He doesn’t say, “well, I may sin, but deep down I’m not so bad.” To the contrary, his claim is precisely about the way he behaves. I am innocent!
But the next line turns this around: “Trusting in God, I have not fallen.” It turns out that he is not the source of his innocence. He claims no ultimate responsibility whatsoever. It is God’s work that saves him. We could even translate this, “when I trust, I do not fall” – with the obvious corollary, and “when I do not trust, I do fall.”
The Catholic, Biblical understanding of mercy and justice is not that God’s mercy allows him to overlook our wickedness – or at least, not just that. Because in that view God is purely outside of us. The Biblical understanding is that God is more interior to us than we are to ourselves. God’s mercy can make us just. He can change the way that we walk.
When we say, “judge me,” we really say, “despise not the work of your hands.” Be glad, O Lord, at what your hands have made!
Now, nonetheless, it remains pretty gutsy to say this. It is like when the Roman Canon says of us, “whose faith and devotion are known to you” (just as our minds are wandering off), or when we dare to say “forgive us as we forgive” (just as we are annoyed at the priest, and the organist, and the person down the pew, and daydreaming about various other people). Yikes. That comes awfully close to saying, “don’t bother to forgive me at all.”
There is something aspirational in this. We dare to say, “judge me, for I have walked in innocence,” when we really mean, “oh God, please let me become someone who could say something like that!”
In one sense, we simply accept the fact: God wants to make us just. It is not his will that we remain unforgiving, hurtful, hateful, unloving creatures. We say what we cannot yet say, accepting the fact that one day we must truly say it, and hoping that God will make us able to do that. Oh, let me one day be just in your eyes!
In another sense, we realize that his work has already begun. We are meant to acknowledge our sin. But we are also meant to acknowledge the work of conversion God has already done in us, the innocent steps we have already taken through trust in him. We are on our way.
But finally, always we must turn to Christ. The Psalms are ultimately his prayer; our great grace is to be joined to him. We ought to pray this as if he prays it, and Our Blessed Lady, who is truly and totally united to him, prays it. They can say, “I have walked in innocence.”
Our great hope is to be joined to them.
Do we hunger and thirst to be just as Christ would have us thirst?