Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Psalm 49(50): Give Me Your Heart

One of the things for which Jesus often criticized the Pharisees was their emphasis on the minutiae of external observance without any real inner devotion: they worshiped God with words and rituals, but their hearts were far from Him. Yet God had said similar things to his people centuries earlier. I guess it takes a long time to catch on. Psalm 49(50) is a good example (I’ll be using the Knox translation here, but without the archaic English).

The Lord begins with a solemn summons: “It is the Lord God that speaks… He will keep silence no longer… He summons heaven and earth to witness the judgment pronounced on his people.” It’s clear that God has something terribly important to say here.

“Listen, my people, to these words of mine… I do not find fault with you over your sacrifices; why, all day long your burnt offerings smoke before me! But the gifts I accept are not cattle from your stock… I own already every wild beast… Would you have me eat bull’s flesh and drink the blood of goats?” This is quite striking, for sacrificial worship was at the heart of Israelite religion. Suddenly God was saying: OK, enough slaughtered, smoking animals before Me. We’ve more important things to discuss here.

So what is God interested in? “The sacrifice you must offer to God is a sacrifice of praise.” That is, God wants something from the heart, not just a contribution from the herd, which can be made without any love or devotion whatever. But what was wrong with the offering of the prescribed sacrifices? Evidently, the people offered sacrifice perfunctorily but lived evil lives, thinking that God would be appeased by the external offerings. “Swift you are to welcome the thief… to throw in your lot with the adulterers. Malice wells up from your lips…speaking evil of your brother… Such are your ways, and should I make no sign? Should I let you think I am such as you?... Think well on this, you that forget God, or his hand will fall suddenly, and there will be no delivering you…”

God is not mocked, as St Paul said. We reap what we sow. God looks at the heart, not the formal observance of religion. Sometimes I’ve wondered, as I send up clouds of incense before the tabernacle or the icons, if God cares anything for the sight or smell of incense. I’ve concluded that He doesn’t, but He cares much for the soul that offers it. Incense is pleasing to Him when offered from a loving, adoring heart. Otherwise, it’s just smoke in his eyes. Likewise, a widow’s mite is more pleasing to God than the rich gifts of hypocrites.

The psalm concludes with the point of the whole thing: “Live aright, and you shall see the saving power of God.” That is, do the will of God if you want salvation; don’t just go through the motions of religion. An evil (or lukewarm) heart bringing offerings is detestable to God, and He says so in even stronger terms through Isaiah: “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me… I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me… Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen… Cease to do evil, learn to do good…” (Is. 1:13-17, RSV).

We see images of hearts everywhere on this day, a day which for many is merely an opportunity for some increased self-indulgence or illicit pleasure. God sees hearts, too—yours and mine—and He knows what is in them. He asks from us pure hearts, loving and devoted hearts, willing to serve Him and to offer the acceptable sacrifice of praise and fidelity to his word. Give Him your heart today, and every day. He sees right through all phony piety. If you come to Him honestly and humbly, even with a damaged heart, He will accept you. Turn the page of the psalter and you will find that a broken, humble heart is a pleasing sacrifice to the Lord. Then you shall see the saving power of God.