Morning Prayer: Ps. 119:49-72 | Gen. 16:1-14 | John 5:19-29
Evening Prayer: Ps. 49, 53 | Heb. 9:15-29
Psalm 119 is, for me at least, a rather hard psalm to love. It’s just so, so very long, for one, and it exemplifies a piety based on the law that is difficult to me to really identify with – perhaps an unsurprising outcome for someone raised Lutheran! For me, as, I think for many Protestants, raised in a tradition that opposes the law to the gospel, and sees the law as that which kills, convicts, indeed threatens to induce despair in the sin-sick soul, it is striking and maybe even a little alien to read the Psalmist saying “Your statutes have been like songs to me” (119:54a) or “my delight is in your law” (119:70b) or “The law of your mouth is dearer to me than thousands in gold and silver” (119:72). Now, of course, even the most traditional Lutheran reading does not entirely deprecate the law; it functions vitally to preserve the peace of sinful human communities, to show God’s perfect standard to sinful humans and thus instill a sense of guilt and an awareness of the need for grace, and to guide the moral behavior of mature Christians. Yet (and this is supposition; I might well be wrong here) it’s hard to imagine a Luther penning these lines, or even a St. Paul, except in the most dialectical manner (i.e., just as one might call the Fall of Man a “happy fault,” one might call the law beloved or delightful because the very guilt and terror it instilled led to one embracing the freely given grace of God). What’s more, from the perspective of much of the Christian tradition, it’s even somewhat difficult to imagine Jews delighting in the law in such a manner; it’s hardly controversial to note that Christian readings of Judaism from the New Testament on tend to describe it as narrowly legalistic, almost neurotic in its joyless, disciplined obsession with meeting the stringent demands of the Divine Lawgiver — a foil to a joyful Christian freedom (see, say, Galatians 3-4 here).
Given all this, these passages of Psalm 119 remind me first of all that Jewish piety in antiquity was much more complicated and joyous than many Christians have given it credit. I’m also struck by the resonance of the passages here with the vision of the ethical life laid out by virtue ethics in its pagan and Christian forms alike. For virtue ethicists, broadly speaking, the goal of the moral life is not, say, a curbing of the will and appetites in order to do the good that a universally-disclosed reason demands, as in Kant, but rather a lifelong cultivation of the good habits that lead one to desire the good or the moral – to love the law! For Christians, it doesn’t seem such a stretch to see parallels between the ethical trajectory of gradual, painstaking growth in virtue which virtue ethics lays out and the theological concept of sanctification. One might say that the goal of the Christian life, ethically speaking, is to move from hating the law to loving it, to actively desire to do the good until, like the Psalmist, we can say “your statutes have been like songs to me.”
N.B.: I could justly be accused here of a slippage between the commandments of the Torah and morality as such! But such is a conversation for another time, i.e., when I am actually equipped to handle it. In my defense I might note that Paul and Luther might be accused of the same thing, so at least I’m in good company…