Psalm 51 is one of my favorite psalms. It is attributed to King David and expresses a heartfelt lament over his tragic decision to have Uriah killed so that he could be with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife (2 Sam 11:1-27). While the wickedness of the plot is revolting there is something captivating about the honesty and vulnerability that David displays as he turns to God in anguish over what he has done. This once innocent shepherd boy now looks at himself in the mirror and despises what he sees. He is crippled by his tormenting guilt and his need to call upon God draws us into his emotional plea.
I empathize with the guilt expressed. I have regrets. I know that I am a sinner, that I have weaknesses and failings and that I cannot stand before God without hanging my head. I also know that I am not alone. People tell me their own stories of heartache and betrayal; things they have done and things they should have done or said. David’s guilt is a universal attribute of the human condition.
But this psalm is not just a tale of shame. It also speaks boldly of trust, of utter confidence that God will not condemn us as we approach with our heads bowed low. David is not presuming on God’s mercy, his sorrow is sincere, but he knows that there is nothing that he has done that cannot be redeemed by God. He knows because it is the story of God’s love for the people of his kingdom, the people of the covenant. David’s prayer is heal me Lord of my sin and then use me to heal others.
In this prayer we find the wisdom behind 12 step programs who use the experience of recovering addicts to help those who are still in active addiction. It is the wisdom found in Henri Nouwen’s book, “The Wounded Healer” that says we cannot begin to minister to others until we acknowledge and are redeemed in our brokenness.
In the Gospel two men stand before God. One is weak and one appears strong. The weak penitent man is saved while the other is not. Not because God dislikes self righteous people, but because the man could not see his own brokenness, his own need for healing.
One recurring struggle that people share is the difficulty of going to confession. What is your experience of that sacrament? What could a priest say that would make the sacrament more inviting?
Note from the preacher: Does it ever bother you how the psalms can lose their emotional impact when they are read, straight faced, from behind a pulpit? One of the best popular references to the David and Bathsheba story is Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”. This is a video of four Norwegian singers covering that song. For me it offers the goose bumpy effect that the psalms were meant to evoke.