Psalm for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Psalm 34: 2-3, 16-21

Our responsorial psalm for today’s celebration is the third part of Psalm 34, the acrostic poem that constituted the reading for the 19th and 20th Sundays in Ordinary Time (although last week our celebration of the Assumption of Mary supplanted the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time).

It has already been noted that this psalm is less a prayer than an instruction. Its content teaches that the righteous will be blessed and the wicked will be punished.

I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall be ever in my mouth. Let my soul glory in the LORD; the lowly will hear me and be glad.

As before, our passage begins with an expression of praise of God and an acknowledgment of the appropriateness of blessing God. This praise probably takes place in some kind of liturgical setting, for it is heard by the lowly (’ănāwîm), those who live in trust and dependence on the LORD.

The LORD has eyes for the just, and ears for their cry. The LORD confronts the evildoers, to destroy remembrance of them from the earth.

The contrast between the just and the wicked is clearly drawn. God looks favorably toward the righteous; their cries for help will be heard and God will provide them with what they need. The fortunes of the wicked will be the exact opposite: the face of the LORD will be set against them and they will experience God’s hostility in the worst possible way. Remembrance of them will be wiped out.

In a society that doesn’t have a clear teaching about any afterlife, such a fate means that no trace of the person will survive, and it will be as if that person had never even existed.

When the just cry out, the LORD hears them, and from all their distress he rescues them. He is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.

The psalmist is not naive about the challenges of life, even the life of the upright. In many instances, the theory of retribution is more a statement of faith in God’s justice than an accurate description of life’s circumstances.

Good people do indeed suffer, but they turn to God in their pain and misery. Whether they are rescued from their affliction or not, they stand under the promise of God’s loving presence. Because suffering is often seen as the result of alienation from God, assurance of God’s nearness can alleviate the distress that such a misperception might cause.

Many are the troubles of the just one, but out of them all the LORD delivers him.

Not only do good people suffer, but sometimes it seems that they suffer precisely because they are good. This might be because they are more sensitive to right and wrong, or perhaps they are the victims of the sinfulness of others. Whatever the reason may be, the lives of the righteous are often fraught with trouble.

The psalmist claims that God hears the cry of these upright people and draws them out of their afflictions.

He watches over all his bones; not one of them shall be broken.

The response’s final statement of faith characterizes God as the protector of the vulnerable, watching over them lest they be harmed in any way.

The kind of teaching found in this psalm is intended to inspire virtuous living and to teach us to trust in God’s promises.

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