“The Penitent Will Pass”Dr. Stephen Z. Hearne Psalm 51:1-12 Year B - Proper 13 (18) Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
In the movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones attempts to get past several traps that have been set to keep people from stealing “the Holy Grail,” the cup of Christ. His father has just been shot by the Nazis, and attaining the cup is the only way to save him. Indiana must solve different “riddles” in order to avoid being killed in one of the traps.
One trap seems deadliest as he walks through a tunnel looking at recently decapitated soldiers along the way. The clue is “only the penitent man will pass,” and he keeps repeating it as a wind begins to blow through the tunnel. Suddenly, as the wind gets stronger and the sense of urgency increases, Indiana Jones blurts out, “The penitent man is humble before God,” and as he suddenly kneels and bows down, a large, razor-sharp, spinning blade whisks just over his head.
His life is “saved” because of a penitent position. He continues on his quest, eventually obtains the cup, saves his father’s life, and finds a restored relationship with his estranged dad.
The 51st psalm reflects the same sense of penance and humility in God’s presence. The Psalm is attributed to David, and the time frame is after his affair with Bathsheba has been disclosed by Nathan. His distress is of the soul and spirit as he realizes the alienation from God that he has brought upon himself.
There is no lament because of external enemies like in so many other psalms. The writer’s complaint is of his own sinfulness and from his sense of guilt. While there is a commonality of human experience, he does not seek to avoid punishment, but he wants to be cleansed and renewed, acceptable to God.
As the psalm opens, he admits his guilt and throws himself on God’s mercy. His penitence is further expressed by his immediate request for cleansing and for God to remove his sin from God’s records. He wants to be completely cleansed so that he will be fit to appear before God.
The word in this passage translated “cleanse” is used in other places for the removal of impurities from metals. David wishes God’s loving-kindness to bring him a newness of life that makes him fit to live as God’s child.
His sin is not only is known to him but is seen by the audience–all of the nation. Though the sin has been committed against others, the reach of it goes even deeper. It is grievous to God and has so broken the relationship between God and him that David bows face down before God.
Such a penitent position also reflects his understanding that whatever punishment he receives is justified, but his prayer is for punishment to bring restoration rather than mere vindictiveness. Why? He truly wants to be changed, no longer afraid of himself but to be made whole.
There is an interesting aside in verse 5–a seeming nod toward “original sin.” In his highly emotional state, David seems to be supporting this idea. Yet, the following verses, we find that what God wants within a person is truth and wisdom. Therefore, sin does not originate within the person as a condition set by God but derives from personal choice (so much for “lapsarianism”).
The inward being and the secret heart are the most deeply elemental parts of our humanity and have been so since creation. This is what is decidedly distinctive between humans and the rest of the creation. The secret heart is that place where one’s greatest opportunity for connection with God and others is found. It is where we are “who we are.” And it is where true humility resides. When this is understood, penitence is the by-product of recognizing one’s sinfulness before God regardless of the “degree” of the sin.
Much like Isaiah’s realization of sinfulness at his call (Isaiah 6), the psalmist cries for purging. Purge here indicates a complete healing as the hyssop was used to heal lepers. He regards his sinfulness as leprosy and begs God to eradicate it from his life and leave him without a trace of the sickness, as clean and white as new-fallen snow. Of course, this image has spawned one of the most endearing pleas and pictures in hymnody–“Now wash me and I will be whiter than snow.”
Further, he asks God to take the emptiness left by sin and fill him with healing all the way to the marrow of his bones, making him strong enough to stand once again in God’s presence. His hope is a further reflection of the idea that God’s forgiveness includes placing the sin in the sea of forgetfulness with a “no fishing allowed” sign, as we used to say in the Jesus movement of the 1970’s, a place where God blots out sin and does not turn to look at it ever again.
He has confidence in God doing this for him, and when God does, the psalmist believes that he will be a new creation–new in heart, mind, and spirit. The term used for create is the same as in the creation stories in Genesis when everything was fresh and clean and good.
It is interesting to note that this idea follows the request to “fill” him (literally, make to hear in Hebrew). What is it to be filled but to be made to hear God in the deepest recesses of our very being? When this occurs, he will once again be in a position of unwavering loyalty to God, full of God’s Spirit (ruach) which breathes new life into his tired, broken bones just as surely as God first breathed life into the lifeless bones of the first human (adhamah) in Genesis 2.
The new growth of that Spirit will strengthen the good desires of his heart, bringing continuing salvation and restoration of a willing, penitent spirit.
The psalmist has reached a point where he knows that the only way to move past the certainty of destruction and separation from God, his father, is the way of penitence. As his sinfulness has been exposed before God and others, he is humbled and hopeful. He is humbled as he realizes that only with God’s cleansing help can he pass through the trials of life and find salvation; hopeful that a bowed and penitent spirit will unite him with his Father once again.
How often are we like Indiana Jones or David after Bathsheba, seeking to live life on our terms, sometimes haughtily? How much of time do we spend bantering with and being separated from our Father? Perhaps it is time for us to remember the restoration of truly meaningful relationships and the cleansing starts that are allowed to the penitent–and that the “penitent man or woman will pass” as a new creation with God.
About the Writer: Dr. Stephen Z Hearne is a professor, chaplain, and pastor. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and Spartanburg Methodist College and serves as a Chaplain for the Greenville Hospital System. He recently retired as Pastor, First Baptist Church, Piedmont, SC; and is active in interim and pulpit supply.
Dr. Hearne is a graduate of Elon College, Elon College, NC; Erskine Theological Seminary, Due West, SC; Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, NC; and also studied at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.
Steve enjoys hunting, reading, and being with family, especially with Mary, his bride of over 43 and a half years, and their two granddaughters, Sidney and Quinn
Scripture and Music:
2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
God Be Merciful to Me
The Church’s One Foundation
Help Us Accept Each Other
Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts
All the Way, My Savior Leads Me
I Heard to Voice of Jesus Say
Break Thou the Bread of Life
Just as I Am
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Become to Us the Living Bread
Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God (Mueller)
You Satisfy the Hungry Heart (Ferguson)
Let Us Break Bread Together
Here Is Water, Lord (Martin)
Fill My Cup, Lord
The Body of the Lord
As We Gather Around the Table (Blankenship)