August 1, 2021 Psalm 10, Psalm 82
Do you think God takes sides? When you have an argument with a friend, do you think of God as being on your side? Maybe your friend thinks the same thing! Perhaps when we are thinking that we are in the right, that our way is the correct way, the just way, the best way, then we are also assuming that God is on our side, that we are doing or saying or thinking the way God would want us to.
When soldiers are killing each other over land or people or power, those on each side of the conflict assume that they are “in the right”, otherwise they would not be fighting and risking their lives. It is not unusual for those involved in battle who believe that their side is in the right, to also interpret their situation as meaning God is on their side. I ask you this morning, could God really be on either side when we humans can’t settle our differences without violence?
How about when football players gather together for a prayer before a game? Some may pray that no one gets hurt. Some may ask God for the best team to win. Others may pray to win, basically asking God to be on their side so they will come out victorious. In some situations, we too have been known to ask God to take sides, always our side, of course!
Well, I believe God takes sides. Not in an argument, not in a war, not on the football field. But always God takes the side of those who are disadvantaged economically, physically, or socially, those who are particularly vulnerable or weak. In Scripture, we learn that God is particularly concerned about those who have low economic status, who are stepped on by others, who seem to have no chance to climb out of debt or homelessness. We definitely hear this concern in Jesus’ teaching– for example, the blessings and woes of Luke chapter 6. Each part of the teaching begins with an economic focus: first, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven,” and then the contrast: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your compensation.” The rich have already gotten their prize, but the poor have a prize ahead of them—not only in heaven, but in God’s kingdom right here. Throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus seems drawn particularly to those who are poor, vulnerable, or cast out by society. To these the kingdom of heaven belongs. But it is not only Jesus who sides with people who are in poverty. We find God described in the psalms as one who takes the side of those who have no one to stand up for them. We find in Psalms 10 and 82, among others, that God has a preferential option for the poor.
This description of God having a preferential option for the poor was used at the 1979 Latin American Bishops’ Conference which met in Puebla, Mexico. The bishops stated: “this option does not imply exclusion of anyone, but it does imply a preference for the poor and a drawing closer to them”. It seems the same logic used by the Black Lives Matter movement, which insists that it is not that any other lives don’t matter, but it is that Black and indigenous lives have not mattered to white lives since before this nation was founded. It is insisting that Black Lives DO Matter, that Black Lives Matter TOO.
God does indeed take sides. God takes the side of the vulnerable, the oppressed, the ones in trouble, and in these psalms, especially the people living in poverty. In Psalm 10, the psalmist describes the kind of wicked people, or oppressors, who ignore those in dire straits, always ready to ambush them in some way (maybe you know people like that!). The oppressors purposely add to their suffering and make a point of showing them who is boss in their community. They assume that God will not notice their actions, that God has forgotten and has hidden his face. But God does see, God does know what they are doing. Listen to the last verse of the psalm again, from the Contemporary English Bible translation: “Lord, you listen to the desires of those who suffer. You steady their hearts; you listen closely to them, to establish justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that the people of the land will never again be terrified.” God listens, God takes the side of the ones who suffer, who have no one to stand up for them, the ones without parents, the ones who are discriminated against, held back, or pushed aside. The psalmists use terms that are a part of our speech, basically defining people by their current economic or social status: the poor, the needy, the orphan, the lowly, the destitute, the needy (that last one especially grates on me—aren’t we all in need of something?). Each of those terms ignores the many other human qualities of these neighbors by defining them only as poor, needy, lowly. or destitute. It is dehumanizing, in a similar pattern that was used to define a human being as a slave, with that entire system of cruel enforced labor creating a caste system based on skin color that continues to separate and discriminate today. If you read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste, with us before September 19, you will have a chance to discuss the implications of this shameful history with other members of our church family.
Just because our forebears have used dehumanizing nomenclature does not mean we have to continue to use it, dehumanizing our neighbors by defining them by their economic situation. In 2021, I am trying to change my way of speaking to say, God takes the side of the people (that is people just like me) who are currently poor or sick, the people who have been cast aside by the rest of society, the people who are oppressed by the wicked. I want to think of these neighbors as people first, and their situation second.
Psalm 82 is set as a mythic heavenly courtroom scene, with God as the judge over a council of lesser gods. God speaks: “How long will you judge unjustly by granting favor to the wicked?” Granting favored status to those who mistreat those in poverty has got to stop. People who are doing that are wandering around in the dark. They don’t get it. Instead, says God, “Give justice to the lowly and the orphan; maintain the right of the poor and the destitute! Rescue the lowly and the needy. Deliver them from the power of the wicked!” That is the way to operate in heaven and on earth. Clint McCann writes, “God cannot be God without the characteristic of justice.” Indeed, God has a preferential option for people living in poverty. God does take sides. And so should we. Amen.