The Two Ways
As a young child, I was a diligent Bible-reader. An obedient child, I heard at church that I should read the Bible every day, and so I did just that. I also heard that people really loved the Psalms - many people I knew listed it as their favorite book of the Bible. So I was eager to read the Psalms - but honestly, I found them a bit boring. I hadn’t quite developed an appreciation for poetry yet I think! I didn’t read them very attentively. Rereading them as an adult, I did find a few favorites, but overall, I’ll admit that I’ve remained mostly less-than-enamored with them. With some notable exceptions, I noticed a theme in the Psalms, in these prayers: God, I’m really faithful to you, and my enemies are really awful. So, please bless me, and please smite them. Destroy them. Defeat them. Thanks! And oh yeah - I praise your name and stuff.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Psalms and our relationship with our enemies. Who are our enemies, why are they our enemies, and what is our relationship to those we would give that label? Does God want us to have enemies? Is having enemies always a failure - on their part, or ours? Is having enemies just a necessary part of seeking to follow God’s path, since there are some who adamantly want to undermine God’s work of justice and righteousness? Is having enemies something we should cultivate - as a sign we’re on God’s side, doing God’s work? Or is it something we should work to eliminate, in acts of reconciliation and forgiveness? For all my questions, the Psalms seem so nuanced to me. I’m in the right. My enemies are wrong, and conveniently, my enemies are God’s enemies too.
Still, I can’t deny that I have enemies. It’s just that I don’t spend a lot of my prayer energy asking God to smite my enemies, or telling God how glad I am that I’m so much better than the wicked people over there. I can’t pat myself on the back for my good behavior though, because:
I already believe that God doesn’t view my “enemies” in the same way I do, and isn’t interested in doing my bidding against them, giving them the comeuppance I think they deserve. It’s just practical not to pray to God to smite my enemies because I don’t think God will do it for me. I, however, will still admit to imagining my enemies smote, punished, or at least, finally, convinced of the error of their ways and the rightness of my ways.
And other times, I don’t pray for God to smite the wicked, because I’m not so sure of my own standing. Sometimes I delight in God’s law, and meditate on it, like our text from Psalm 1 urges - although probably not quite day and night. Sometimes I feel like I’m planted by the stream of water, spiritually fruitful and prosperous. But other times, I’m pretty sure I’m on the path that sinners treat, and the seat of scoffers? That sounds like a place for my fluent-in-sarcasm self. So, I don’t pray for God to judge the wicked quickly and harshly as a matter of self-protection.
What do we do with these Psalms, then, that seem to make things so clear? Psalm 1 is titled “The Two Ways” in my Bible. There are two paths, diverging, maybe not in a yellow wood, but in our everyday experiences, and we must choose this or that, right or wrong, God’s way, or the way of the enemy(ies) either/or.
But between the added-in-title of the Psalm and perhaps more “either/or” thinking of my own than I’d like to admit accompanying me in the reading of this first Psalm, I realize I’ve been a careless reader. At least in this psalm, although there are others that are clearer about claiming who is in the right and who is in the wrong, decidedly clear about who is good and who is bad, in this psalm, despite my initial reading, I realize eventually that the psalmist does not claim to be part of one group or the other, on one path or the other of the “Two Ways” they describe. Happy are those who delight in God and God’s law, and unhappy are those who are wicked - but which is the psalmist? They claim no identification with either group, with either path. Maybe they are standing at the fork in the road, wrestling with who they are, and who God is calling them to be, wanting the streams of water and the luscious fruit, but also feeling caught in the wind like the dispersing chaff, tossed on the air.
And then there’s something more: in this psalm, the psalmist doesn’t say that wicked will perish. They say that the way of the wicked will perish. And suddenly, I’m envisioning a path once clear, long unused, overgrown with new life until eventually you can’t tell there used to be a trail, a road, a way. Now this is a vision that calls to me - that the way of wickedness - of harming others, of being complicit in oppression and injustice - might be a way that I choose less and less frequently, that we choose less frequently, that we create ways to help others choose it less frequently, until where once there was a path of wickedness, now there is only life, and life abundant.
Happy are those who delight in God. They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. As for the way of wickedness? That path with which we’re all familiar? May flowers and trees and life-giving things and other signs of the justice and joy we find in life with God simply overwhelm this other way, until it can’t help but be drawn back into delighting in God’s path. Amen.