31st Sunday of Ordinary Time (A): Psalm 131
O Lord, my heart is not proud,
nor are my eyes haughty;
I busy not myself with great things,
nor with things too sublime for me.
Nay, rather, I have stilled and quieted
my soul like a weaned child.
Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap,
so is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord,
both now and forever.
In you, Lord, I have found my peace. (Psalm response)
As many of you know, the Scripture readings for Sunday Mass are arranged the way they are by design. The main focus is the Gospel reading. The first reading, usually from the Old Testament, reflects or anticipates at least one theme in the Gospel reading. The second reading, usually from Paul’s letters, isn’t chosen in reference to the others. Instead, we get a series of selections from one of Paul’s letters, and then move on to another. After the first reading, and before the second, comes a psalm – affectionately referred to as the “Responsorial Psalm”. It is chosen to be a reflection on the first reading, and to help tie together the first reading and the Gospel reading. The refrain that we sing or say after each psalm verse is meant to bring out some important aspect of the first reading and Gospel for our gradual reflection and meditation.
With this quick background, let’s look at what we have this Sunday. In the first reading, the Lord addresses the Levitical priests of Israel through the prophet Malachi. The priests are challenged to repent and give glory to God, rather than “turning aside from the way” and “causing many to falter by their instruction”. In the Gospel reading, Jesus begins an indictment of the scribes and Pharisees of the time. He says that they “preach but they do not practice”. Rather, “all their works are performed to be seen”. The scribes and Pharisees are condemned, not for false teaching, but for promoting themselves. Jesus expects something far different from religious leaders. “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted”.
Tying these two readings together is a very interesting choice – Psalm 131. This is one of the “psalms of ascents”. It is likely that it was chanted – perhaps over and over again – by people who were on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem for a major sacred feast, and/or chanted within the Temple itself. In a note that sometimes precedes a psalm, we are told that this psalm is “of David”. Some Biblical scholars will say that this need not mean that David literally wrote the psalm himself, but that it was ascribed to him because he exemplified it in some way. More on that in a moment.
A number of scholars, however, put forward an interesting idea: they argue that, because of the imagery used in the psalm – that of a weaned child and its mother – that the original author of the psalm could well be a woman on her way to the Temple. Because a woman wasn’t encouraged to lead worship or meddle in religious affairs (to put it mildly), she begins by saying that she is not trying to discuss things that, as a woman, she is not supposed to discuss. Rather, seeing her weaned child at peace on her lap, she uses that image as an image for how her own heart and soul rest in God, in trust and peace. She will not allow oppression (conscious or unconscious) to distract or upset her. She knows that her hope is in the Lord, not in how others see her. She need claim nothing for herself. The Lord will give her everything that matters.
It is impossible to prove or disprove this hypothesis. We simply do not know enough about how the psalms were put together. However, it does offer us some fascinating insights and connections. The song of this unknown woman, as brief as it is here, resonates with the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 (she being a scorned woman who nevertheless is blessed with a son – Samuel) and Mary’s own Magnificat in Luke 1. Both women sing of how the Lord has brought down the proud and raised up the lowly who hope in the Lord’s love.
There is more. By placing this psalm in the midst of this Sunday’s readings, the Church sees it as a commentary on both readings. In both cases, religious leaders (generally men) are criticized for excessive pride and focus on themselves, rather than on the Lord and their mission from the Lord. They are criticized, even more importantly, for failing to live by the Lord’s own example. After all, Jesus himself says, “I am meek and humble of heart”.
Now, think of how Jesus showed particular mercy and attention to women during his ministry. While dining in a Pharisee’s house, Jesus tells his host that a woman with a sinful reputation, who has barged in and is kissing his feet, is closer to the kingdom of God than the host and all the invited guests. Think again of how he took a child (a weaned child, by the way), set the child on his lap, and then told his disciples (who had been arguing about which of them was the greatest) that it was only by imitating this child that they could inherit the kingdom of God. Jesus was, prophetically, enacting Psalm 131 for his disciples.
Among the many titles of Jesus is “Son of David”. Jesus reveals himself to us as the Promised One, the Messiah, the true Son of David who would rule forever. Psalm 131, as we have seen, is ascribed to David. David is often cited as an example of humility before God, despite being king and despite his sins. One striking example can be found in 1 Samuel 6. David is leading the procession that is bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, the new capital of Israel. David begins to dance with abandon, mindless of his royal dignity. Michal, his wife, later chides him for this. David replies that it was good for him to humble himself before the Lord, as he will be esteemed by the humble of the land. Jesus, as the true Son of David, would live out humility to the highest degree (Philippians 2:5-11).
There is still more. The response we are invited to repeat after each verse of this psalm in the liturgy is “In you, Lord, I have found my peace”. This image of the little child at peace, in total trust, in its mother’s lap also evokes the Sabbath rest. Psalm 131 is a true Sabbath psalm. How so? We are told in Genesis that God rested from his work of creation on the seventh day and made it holy – the Sabbath. God acts to free the people of Israel from oppressive slavery in Egypt precisely to offer them this same Sabbath rest – a rest God offers to all who hope in him, which is one of the major themes of the letter to the Hebrews. Jesus heals people on the Sabbath – not because he disregards the Sabbath, but because this is what the Sabbath is truly all about: rest from all oppression and from all evil, so that the people might be free to give thanks and praise to the Lord and rejoice in all the Lord’s gifts. The child in its mother’s lap knows this Sabbath intimately. There is total trust and hope. There is no need to draw attention to itself, or to vie with others for illusory honor or glory. God will give all that is truly needed.
The placement of Psalm 131 among the readings for this Sunday make it a commentary valuable to the lives of all Christians – but especially to those called to any leadership or ministry among God’s holy people. There is no place for rivalry or conceit. There is (or should be) no need for Church leaders to justify themselves or promote themselves. Instead, their attitude should be like that of the woman who has no right to sing God’s praise in public, but who does so anyway, knowing that she is like a weaned child on its mother’s lap. Their attitude should be like David, who dances with abandon, heedless of his royal standing, because the Lord must be praised – even (and especially) at the risk of humbling oneself. Their attitude, most of all, needs to be that of Christ. Though he was God, he did not exploit his status as God, but emptied himself to death for us. He, too, was – and is – a Child on its Mother/Father’s lap, with total trust and hope in the Father, and the total love and unity of the Holy Spirit between them.