Well, here we are again. We’ve reached the last week of the liturgical calendar. Yesterday we celebrated Christ the King, and so this week it’s time to look back, and take stock, and think about the kingdom of heaven.
The psalm for today, Psalm 106, does this sort of work as it reviews the history of Israel’s relationship with God after the exodus from Egypt. The psalm begins and ends with an emphatic “Praise the Lord!” and commands the people to give thanks to God whose steadfast love (sometimes translated “lovingkindness” or “mercy”) endures forever.
This history, of course, is not one to be proud of. It’s all about the people’s forgetfulness and rebellion. The psalmist writes, “we have committed iniquity, we have done wickedly.” There are familiar bits (the Red Sea, the Golden Calf) and some not-so familiar-bits (Phinehas and Baal Peor), but the shape of the narrative, the ups and downs of the relationship, is a tale we know well.
People typically read this kind of narrative as a Parent-and-Child Story: a wise and benevolent God punishes the people when they misbehave to teach them to do right. But this time as I read the psalm, the story began to strike me as one of those movies about two people who are clearly meant to be together, but just can’t seem to make it happen. And this is not a chirpy When Harry Met Sally film; it’s more like Gone with the Wind or Breaking Bad.
Think about it: He’s a good guy. She can be wonderful, but she’s clearly messed up. She ignores him, she cheats; he’s angry, they fight, they break up. There are tears and forgiveness; things are good for a time … and then it happens all over again. By the end of the movie, we’re all exhausted by their struggles, but we love them. And they so obviously belong together.
If I read Psalm 106 as a love story instead of a disobedient child story, I begin to notice how God models for us that seventy-times-seven forgiveness that Jesus talks about. God’s mercy endures forever, and there’s a real emphasis here on endurance. God feels the beloved’s scorn. The people grumble and despise the pleasant land they’ve been given. They have no faith in God’s promise, they offer their children as sacrifice. All of God’s marvelous works are forgotten.
But God remembers. He remembers his covenant with Israel, and he remembers who He Is, forgiving the nation and saving them “for His Name’s sake.” If this is a story about love, then God’s enduring mercy, his steadfast love, manifests as forgiveness as well as rescue.
God is no chump. If he keeps coming back, then there must be something real about that seventy-times-seven. If he’s modeling forgiveness, then we know we’re supposed to be loving and forgiving in our relationships, too, but that’s a challenge.
Serious relationships take all kinds of forgiveness. Sometimes it’s a quotidian thing—an everyday over-and-over task, forgiveness as common as picking up someone else’s dirty clothes from the floor. Again. That kind of forgiveness can wear you out, but it doesn’t hurt much.
At other times, forgiveness is huge, nearly unimaginable–deceit and betrayal–who can forgive such injury at the hands of a loved one? You find yourself fighting through pain and outrage, trying to find a scrap of love just big enough to hold you up.
Either way, forgiveness takes endurance, and if history is any indication, we’re too often characterized by our enduring hardness of heart. We need to practice the forgiveness we seek, both to gain the strength we need and to understand the cost. It’s why we read this story again and again. It’s an act of obedience; an act of hope.
Alice Campbell blogs about her experience of God and the Church at Grace is Everywhere.
Photograph: James Nichols (public domain)