Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lectionary Psalter Slasher Strikes Again

Most folks I talk to are glad that the readings from the Psalter that we are given each Sunday are shortened. I, on the other hand, am a fan of the Psalms and hate to see them changed in any way. The lectionary frequently edits the psalms in addition to the other readings, and I have often questioned the rationale behind such edits. Today, I would rather focus on the effect on the casual churchgoer of what might initially seem to be meaningless changes to Psalm 78 (today's chosen psalm). 
First, read and digest the appointed verses:

1 Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth
2 I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,
3 things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.
4 We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the  Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. 

(You may have noted that verses 5-11 were missing from today's psalm.)

12 In the sight of their ancestors he worked marvels in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan.
13 He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap.
14 In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all night long with a fiery light.
15 He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
16 He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers. 

Taken on its own, this psalm fragment points to a glorious God, who worked wonders, delivered and provided for the Israelites in the time of Exodus. God is great. People are...well, there ain't a whole lot about people in that version. Maybe they left that part out. Now, where might they have put it? Maybe in those missing verses?

5 He established a decree in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach to their children;
6 that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children,
7 so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments;
8 and that they should not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God. 

 9 The Ephraimites, armed with the bow, turned back on the day of battle.
10 They did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to his law. 
11 They forgot what he had done, and the miracles that he had shown them

 As far as lectionary edits go, this one might seem rather minor, and it does leave us with a nice uplifting message, but think about the cumulative effect of hearing only the positives. If one does not hear about how we still resist and offend such a wondrous God, won't we get to feeling a bit too good about ourselves. Doesn't anybody think that there could be lasting harm in this?

I hesitate to speculate again that the goal of the lectionary editors might be to make people feel good about themselves so that folks not leave church feeling guilty, but that does seem to me to be an recurring theme.

The church that tries to teach only positive things will inevitably find itself face to face with people doing negative things. What is such a church to do? How can it turn to scriptures for help if those scriptures have had the wonderful examples of our ancestors' negative behaviors expunged?

And what were they thinking when they make this cut right after verses 2-4 in which we heard that we will not hide these things from future generations?

The net effect is a quiet ruling, "We need to hide that from the coming generation!"

I am afraid that the leaders who guide us with Sunday worship resources are in danger of acting "like those forgotten ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God. "


  1. Anonymous7:27 AM

    Keep 'em coming on the missing verses! The 'easy' ones are always in the Lectionary. Thank you for putting this psalm into its proper context.

    Thanks also for concluding with that beautiful verse from Joshua -- one of my favourites!


  2. God's blessings always come with a warning about the effects of disobedience. The two --blessings and curses (literally and figuratively)-- exist together. You need to understand both to see the full picture of God.


  3. Thanks again Churchmouse. Funny how the tough ones always get the ax.

  4. Randall,

    Right. Try as they may, you can't erase the scriptural warnings that disobedience has consequences. Pity the child of God that does not hear that lesson. Woe to the teachers who fail to tell that lesson to the future generations.