Sermon on Matthew 22:35-46
If we are practicing Byzantine Catholics, then we are well acquainted with the Book of Psalms. If we are not well acquainted with the Book of Psalms, then we have not yet begun to practice our Byzantine tradition. Our Byzantine tradition of prayer is positively steeped in the Psalter. We pray the Psalms constantly and at every liturgical service, including this Divine Liturgy, though, interestingly, least of all. All of our other services include even more Psalmody. We truly follow the instruction of Saint Paul, when he tells us to “greet one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all [our] heart[s]” (Eph. 5:19). This apostolic tradition is here very much alive.
And remember that tradition is a living thing if it is anything of value at all. The great scholar of history and theology Jaroslav Pelikan said from experience, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; [whereas] traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”[i]
So while we keep the good tradition of singing Psalms, it is good also for us to find a way of doing it that we will actually do, rather than insisting that only one of the ancient ways is worthwhile. Often, if we take that tack, we soon discover that these ancient ways are rather cumbersome, as it turns out, and so we give up the whole thing. Better, as I say, to sing the Psalms according to a rule we will actually keep in our actual real lives.
And one piece of guidance I would give you, whether you asked for it or not, is that your prayer should include at least some psalmody. Not overmuch, necessarily, but some. It is not necessary for lay people to keep the Byzantine monastic cycle of psalmody, which goes through the entire book, all 150 Psalms, each and every week, and twice a week during the Great Fast. That’s a bit much for most of us who are living in the world and, if we try to do it, we may soon burn out and give up the whole thing. Rather, the tradition that stands there to inspire us. If the monks and nuns of our tradition can keep this great discipline, perhaps we can at least pray a psalm each day. That would be a good thing. Don’t be intimidated. Some of them are quite short. Here is a Psalm in its entirety, which we always pray at Vespers:
Praise the Lord, all you nations, acclaim him all you peoples! Strong is the love of the Lord for us; he is faithful forever (Psalm 116).
There, you see? That’s not too much. You can pray a Psalm each day. And it is worthwhile to do so.
The Book of Psalms contains the revelation of God. It is inspired by the Holy Spirit. And it is the prayer book of Jesus Christ himself. This book in a unique way contains the prayers of God to God. For example, when we pray Psalm 21, we are praying a prayer that was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and which was prayed to our Father in the heavens, by his only begotten Son in his humanity as he hung upon the cross and cried out, “Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This Psalm therefore connects us into an unfathomable inner experience of Christ our God like no other prayer can.
We know this from the gospel. Now, if we were to pray that same psalm apart from its gospel context, we would fathom it even less. In fact, this same great and holy book becomes so unwieldy if divorced from the gospel, that it can even begin to lead some people astray. That which is holy and edifying and divinizing could be confused and distorted and manipulated by the enemy to mean in some cases the very opposite of what God means by it. Never forget that the devil quoted the Psalms while tempting Jesus in the desert (Matt 4:6; Ps. 90:11, 12).
I will give you an extreme example. In the Psalms we proclaim, “Do I not hate those who hate you? abhor those who rise against you? I hate them with a perfect hate and they are foes to me” (Ps. 138:21-22). This is a psalm that we Christians pray. As I said, our monks and nuns pray this prayer every week, and twice a week during the Great Fast. Meanwhile, Jesus has given us a new teaching: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). We have here a contradiction, it would seem. Some Christians have been so perplexed by this, that they have removed this Psalm and others like it from their own cycle of prayer. We Byzantines do not do this. Rather we seek to know what God means by it.
Speaking about this very Psalm, St. Basil the Great says, “It is not hard for us, if we wish it, to take up a love for justice and a hatred for iniquity. God has advantageously given all power to the rational soul, as that of loving, so also that of hating, in order that, guided by reason, we may love virtue but hate vice. It is possible at times to use hatred even praiseworthily.”[ii]
And then he quotes the same verse I have already mentioned. It’s clear, I think, that Basil is starting with Christ and his gospel, and is understanding the psalms he’s praying only in that context and from that perspective. Therefore, and only because of this, he is able to see that the “ones” we are to hate are no fellow humans or creatures of God, but only vice and iniquity, which God did not make. In interpreting the Psalms this way, St. Basil is following the example of Jesus himself, as we heard in the gospel this morning.
Today, Jesus reveals a manner of understanding the Psalms to the Pharisees he is talking with. He quotes Psalm 109: “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your footstool” (Ps 109:1). He reveals this to be a Messianic psalm about himself, the son of David who is none-the-less also the Lord of David. In fact, he is the Lord God who created David and knit him together in his mother’s womb.
Apart from the guidance of Jesus Christ, this psalm would never have been understood that way. The Jews were expecting a Messiah, but that he would be God incarnate went well beyond their expectations, even though that truth was already being proclaimed in their own Psalms. They could not see it there. And neither would we be able to see it if we did have Christ to open our eyes to it.
And so, in addition to praying the Psalms each day, which I encourage you to do, also read something of the gospel. Because it is only in the gospel that the revelation of the Psalms is made manifest. We need both if we are to commune with God in our prayer. “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” says St. Jerome, so let us immerse ourselves in them day and night to grow in our relationship and intimacy with our Lord.
[i] Carey, Joseph (June 26, 1989). “Christianity as an Enfolding Circle [Conversation with Jaroslav Pelikan]”. U.S. News & World Report. 106 (25). p. 57.
[ii] Homilies on the Psalms