The Psalms on the Poor

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“Do not abandon my soul with sinners

And my life with men of blood.”

Our Psalm 26 leads us now to consider the violence of men against men – and so it encourages us to consider what Pope Francis says about a Church that is “poor and for the poor.”

The poor appear quite frequently in the Psalms: “the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever” (9:18); “The wicked in his pride doth persecute the poor” (10:2); “he lies in wait to catch the poor: he catches the poor, when he draws him into his net. He crouches, and humbles himself, that the poor may fall by his strong ones” (10:9-10); “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, says the LORD” (12:5); “This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles” (34:6); etc.

The image of the poor man here is not primarily about money. It is about power. The poor is defined, not as lacking things, but as being vulnerable. This, indeed, is the deeper wound of poverty: not the frustration of materialism, but fear of oppression.

And this is the image put forth in our Psalm 26. “Don’t not abandon . . . my life with men of blood.” The imagery is of violence, of people who can hurt us, and want to hurt us. And we are vulnerable.

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In considering this image, let us first consider the “men of blood.” Is it not true that people like to hurt one another? We can think of those who hurt us. When we are weak – when we are incompetent (as sometimes we are), when we are on the outside, when we are hurting, even when we are gentle and vulnerable with other people – how often does someone stick a knife in our belly? How often do people throw our sins and other failings in our face, rub our noses in them?

But so too, how often are we men of blood? In order to see this in its fullness, we need insight into the weakness of others. For me, I shudder to say, it stands out with my children. They are tired, they are hungry . . . and am I merciful? Sometimes. But sometimes we are not gentle at all; sometimes we are eager to tell the weak how weak they are, and how in the wrong.

It is hard to see that even the adults who oppress us are often lashing out from their own weakness. How do we respond? We can see, I hope, that we should be gentle with the tired child. But do we see it with the emotionally scarred coworker or relative? When they say something that hurts – but that, honestly, cannot truly injure us – do we see their weakness, or do we attack, eager to find a way to hit them back?

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The Psalms call us to know our own poverty – our own vulnerability and weakness – and cry out to God for help. Scripture never tells us to be strong. It tells us that he is strong, and he will save us. “Do not abandon me with men of blood!” is the cry, not of someone too strong to be hurt, but of someone who know his own weakness, and his need of a Savior.

The Memorare (a prayer written by medievals immersed in the Psalms) teaches us to entrust ourselves to Mary, to trust that she will bring God to our aid. It appeals to our “piety” – unfortunately, the standard English translation says “gracious,” but the root idea is that Mary cares for her family, for her little ones. So too the Our Father teaches us to beg God to protect us: from evil, even from the temptation to evil.

These are prayers of those who know their weakness, know the danger of falling in with men of blood, who turn us into men of blood.

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But the Psalms call us, too, to be Good Samaritans. The Psalms give us a unique space to discover our weakness before God. But the more time we spend realizing that we are not strong enough to stand without God, the more we appreciate that this is true of others, too.

As God has had mercy on our weakness, has reached out to help us when we are helpless, let us reach out to others, even – especially – when they try to hurt us.

Where are you tempted to be a man of blood, violent to the weak? Who acts like a man of blood towards you? Can you see their weakness? Is there any way you can bind up their wounds, or at least not inflict any more?

eric.m.johnston

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