The Reward for Righteousness
Scriptures: Psalm 1; Psalm 73:1-14, 23-26
When personal computers first came into use, there were a
series of books designed to help people use them with titles like Word Perfect for Dummies or The Complete Idiot's Guide to Desk Top Publishing. Since then there have been an explosion of books for dummies on every imaginable topic. This week on Amazon I found The Bible for Dummies, Spirituality for Dummies, Improving Your Memory for Dummies, and my favorite The Complete Idiot's Guide to Self-Esteem.
Psalm 1 could be subtitled: "Blessings for Dummies." Verses
Happy [the older translations say "blessed"] are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law they meditate day and night.
This is a type of psalm is called a wisdom psalm. It is like an
advice column on wise living. And it has good insights. According to Psalm 1 there are two keys to being blessed: 1) avoid the wrong people, and 2) read the right book, which is not bad advice. The best way to mess yourself up is 1) to hang out with the wrong people and 2) to get all your ideas and values from movies, advertising, or social media. The best way to be blessed is to study the scriptures and hang out with other people who do the same.
There you have it. I could end the sermon right here and we could all
go home early, except for a sinister way that this psalm can be misinterpreted.
About nine years ago Time magazine had a cover story called "Does God
Want You to Be Rich?" (Time, Sept. 10, 2006). It was about a wave of teaching particularly in some very large churches called the "prosperity gospel." Using catch phrases like "name it and claim it" or "confess it and possess it," the prosperity gospel teaches that if you have a strong enough faith you can be blessed with wealth, health, and prosperity in this life, and not just in some future one.
To support these beliefs preachers turn to Bible, particularly
passages like Psalm 1. "Blessed are those whose delight is in the law of the Lord," it says. Then it says, "They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in season, and their leaves do not whither. In all that they do, they prosper." That is exactly the kind of verse prosperity teachers love to embrace. Do what God says, and you will prosper.
This is true in a deep sense, but not in the simple way people
sometimes take it. That's why for our first scripture reading this morning I chose Psalm 73. Psalm 73 starts out like Psalm 1: "Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart." But then it notices that life does not always work that way. Verses 3-5: "For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people."
This week in the news there were several stories about Martin Shkreli,
the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. Turing Pharmaceuticals recently bought the manufacturing rights to a drug called Daraprim which is used to treat AIDS patients to keep their disease in remission. After buying exclusive rights to the drug, Shkreli raised the price from $13.50 a pill to $750.00 a pill. Note: this was not a new drug that cost a great deal of money to develop; it had been in existence for decades. But buying exclusive rights to its production Shkreli could control the price, at least until some rival company could develop an alternative, which could take years. He told his board of directors, "So 5,000 paying bottles at the new price is 375 million dollars-almost all profit, and I think we will get three more years of that or more. Should be a very handsome investment for all of us" (CNN Money, Feb. 3, 2016). Shkreli justified the price increase by saying, "If there was a company that was selling an Aston Martin at the price of a bicycle, and we buy that company and we ask to charge Toyota prices, I don't think that that should be a crime" (quoted by Reuters, Sept. 22, 2015). Yes, but people can take or leave an Aston Martin car. They cannot walk from a drug that is used to keep them alive. Shkreli is being investigated for some other business dealings, but this one appears to be perfectly legal. Sometimes the people who get rich by taking advantage of other people just keep getting richer.
In contrast the psalm writer says in verses 13-14, "All in vain I have
kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning." Let's be honest. Things don't always go well for people faithful to God. The psalms, as we shall see in the coming weeks, are filled with cries of anguish from people who have tried all their lives to serve God and still don't have what we would normally consider health, wealth, or prosperity.
So what is the reward for righteousness? What is payoff for serving
God? Verses 23-26:
Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will receive me with honor. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
What is the reward for righteousness? Not wealth, health, or success.
The payoff for righteousness, the payoff for a right relationship to God is . a relationship to God-the God who will be there with you no matter what, the God who will be there with you when everyone and everything else is gone, the God who promises that nothing you do to serve God will ever be wasted or forgotten.
And that is the key to Psalm 1. When talking about people who read
God's word and try to live by it, it says, "They are like trees planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in it season." A tree does not bear fruit to feed itself. A tree bears fruit to be a blessing to others. Even when the fruit is not picked, it falls to the ground and provides nourishment for the seeds encased in the fruit so that they can grow. A tree does not itself grow richer from its fruit; its fruit makes it a blessing to others. And that is the key to what it means to be blessed.
In contrast, Psalm 1 says in verse 4, "The wicked are not so, but are
like chaff that the wind drives away." In other words, the lives of the self-centered have no meaning. They are not a blessing to anyone, not even themselves.
In the musical Hello, Dolly, near the end of the show Dolly
makes this observation. She says, "Money, if you'll pardon the expression, is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow."
That's what the Bible means by being blessed. It means making your
life a blessing to others. That is the payoff for righteousness.
On the other end of the universe from Martin Shkreli is a woman named
Dorothy. Dorothy was a member of the third grade Sunday School class at the Buncombe Street Methodist Church in Greenville, SC. Dorothy was in the third grade Sunday School class for decades. She was in charge of handing out pencils, checking names in the roll book, and collecting the pencils at the end. William Willimon, a pastor who grew up in that church, writes, "We thought she was the teacher's assistant. It was much later, when we were nearly all grown up and adult, that the world told us that Dorothy was someone with Down syndrome. . When Dorothy died in her fifties . the whole church turned out for her funeral. . Many testified to how fortunate they had been to know her" (Resident Aliens, p. 93).
Which person is more blessed: Martin Shkreli or Dorothy? Being
blessed has nothing to do with health, wealth, or power. It has everything to do with being a blessing to others. That's what studying the scriptures in a community of faith can help you be.