Lenten Devotion: “Have mercy on me, O God”

Psa. 51 To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

Two weeks ago we had a guest preacher whose text was Matthew. 4:12-23. He focused his sermon upon Jesus’ use of the phrase “repent” and the concept of “sin.” He asked the congregation (who responded, it is nice to be in a university town) what the Greek term for “sin” was and proceeded to explain that hamartía really means “to miss the mark” as a bowman might miss a target. He also explained that the Greek term or “repent” is metńoia which means “to think about something after it occurs, to reflect and reconsider our action.” His sermon thus focused around the idea of sin and repentance as a process of our not quite getting things right and reflecting upon why that might have happened so that we can be better or more accurate next time. (He also suggested that allowing this to eat at us can lead to physical illness, in reference to the portion of the Gospel reading that said that Jesus went through Galilee “curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” I will leave those comments for another time.)

I found two things about his exegesis that bothered me. First of all, he insisted that he was offering a corrective to the common understanding of sin/repentance by revealing to us what Jesus “was really saying.” How does Greek etymology help us do that? Surely we all agree that Jesus spoke Aramaic and (presumably) understood the Hebrew of the Law and the Prophets. The Hebrew and Aramaic *חטא do carry the sense of “to miss” it is in the sense of to miss the path, to go the wrong way. That is, in a path other than that which God has prepared for his people. *עון meaning “iniquity, guilt” has at its root the notion of something twisted or bent, “perverse” an older generation might have said.

This is all relevant particularly when we consider that the Hebrew term for “repentance” is *שוב which has as its root meaning “to turn back.” In other words, the biblical tradition that Jesus was in understood our lives and our relationships with God using the images and metaphors of a journey. (The early Christians were originally called followers of “The Way.”) The Law of God laid out before Israel the path that they were to follow, kings were judged by whether or not they “walked in the ways” of David or Jeroboam. Deuteronomy sums it up thus, (Deut. 5.33) “You must follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.”

So sin is not “almost making it” rather it is heading the wrong direction. Repentance is not just reflecting upon where we have messed up, it is actively changing the direction of our lives by seeking out God’s path.

The reality is that sin gets a bad rap today. We are a society that views a call to the right course as being “judgmental” (unless it is an election year in which case it is good politics, they other is always going the wrong way). But when John baptized the repentant in the Jordan and when Jesus declared that the Kingdom of God was near and that repentance was necessary for entrance into this kingdom, they knew that a change of life was needed to bring us inline with God’s will for us. Most of all, they knew that God would have mercy on us, forgive us our sins and set us upon the right path.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.

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