by Klaus-Peter Adam
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Did you see “A serious Man” the new movie of the Coen brothers last fall?
It is in 1967, when Larry Gopnik a professor at a quiet university in the midwest learns that his unemployable brother Arthur has landed on some hard times. Larry invites Arthur to stay in his house on the couch.
It is around this time that Larry also learns that his wife Judith can’t take it any longer and considers a divorce. She has fallen in love with one of Larry’s more pompous acquaintances, Sy Abelman.
On top of this come other problems: His son Danny is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew School, and his daughter Sarah is filching his wallet to save up for a nose job. As if this were not abundant enough, an anonymous writer is trying to sabotage his chances for tenure. Also, a student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade, while at the same time threatening him to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments Larry by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium , Larry seeks advice of three different rabbis. Can anyone help him, to cope with his afflictions, and become a righteous person – a Mensch – a serious man?
This is how Michael Stuhlbarg, the actor who plays Larry Gopnik, sounds when he enters Rabbi Marshak’s office and meets the secretary:
I need help.
It’s not about Danny’s bar mitzwah… My son, Danny, he has his Bar Mitzwa, next schabbes. That’s allright.
It’s more about myself. I’ve had quite a bit of tours lately.
I’ve had… marital problems, professional problems, and … you name it.
This is not a frivolous request. I been serious, I’ve tried to be a “serious Man”,
Tried to do right, be a member of the community, raise Danny and Sarah,
Both go to Hebrew School, a good breakfast …
-no, Danny goes to Hebrew School, Sarah doesn’t go to Hebrew School, she has no time, she mostly washes her hair…
Please, just tell the Rabbi, I need help.
The Secretary, a lady in her fifties, brings the request to the Rabbi.
She returns and answers in her low noninvolved voice :
The rabbi is busy!
Gopnik can’t believe it: He didn’t look busy!
The secretary replies:
He’ s thinking!
Welcome to our preaching lab!
Our topic today: How to preach on wisdom texts, such as Ps 91?
“Wisdom literature” is an International Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian phenomenon. Wisdom attempts to explain the world by rules that could essentially been taught. It intended to help the individual to survive in a chaotic, seemingly inexplicable and thus threatening world.
When learned by heart, the condensed rules of wisdom were a treasure for many that would enable you to survive and succeed in this world.
Psalm 91 is a wisdom Psalm, essentially a psalm of trust. It is possible that it was used as a liturgy in the temple. It consists of three parts V 1-2; 3-14 and V 15-16.
The prayer starts with God as refuge and shadow in V 1-2. The middle part in V 3-13 mentions nets and traps. It goes on with sickness, namely pest and then alludes to war imagery: arrows fly against the petitioner on the day, and he has to fear threats of the battle field, against which God’s angels protect him.
V 14-16 conclude with confidence in God, especially with God’s protection for the faithful: “Those who love me, I will deliver. I will protect those who know my name. “ (V 14).
Clearly, this wholehearted trust in God is provocative. We all know of too many countercases of unheard calls and unanswered prayers.
Here is your first task when preaching on a wisdom psalm: channel how we are at unease with this bold confession in God’s trust.
Bringing a modern Job story, like the one of Larry Gopnik, set in the middle class, in the heart of twentieth century America can channel in the right direction. It boils our uneaeseness down to the question: “How do I become a serious man”?
With its plot, the Coen brothers’ movie is a variation of the Job motif:
“Why hold on to your faith, to your community of faith, to biblical teaching,
if the reality proves to be entirely contradictory, and the righteous suffers while the wicked has tons of luck?”
When I thought about how to possibly preach on a wisdom psalm, and more specifically, Ps 91, today, I thought it would be nice to consider 3 different possibilities for reflections on this psalm: First: wisdom in 19th century German liberal theology, second: 20th century national theology, and third, Luther’s preaching on Psalm 91.
In what follows, I will limit myself mainly to the first of these possibilities and, furthermore limit myself to the metaphor of the angels.
A Liberal 19th century theological preaching
How do we preach to modern man? Late 19th century German theologian Friedrich Niebergall posed this question. He broke the biblical message down into soothing elements on the one side and provocative elements on the other side. Ideally both, soothing and stimulant, action-provoking elements, should be mixed in the sermon.
Psalm 91’s focus is essentially on soothing: God is the your rock of salvation, the place of shelter for a believer. And, Ps 91 mentions the angels as divine helpers for the distressed. Its legitimate to tap on the source of this powerful metaphor of the angels guarding the faithful. A well-known motif of religious visual art, the angel who guards a child conveys God’s compassion and the protection for the afflicted. The language of the psalm conveys such a form of a childlike, trust, that can easily misunderstood as naïve.
When applying the psalm’s imagery, you may accentuate this idea of divine help by angels in a specific way. You may interpret it as God’s care for the integrity and preservation of the distressed and you may transfer this metaphor into an appropriate context. Since we are in an institution of higher education, I chose an educational context. Let me shortly elaborate on the help of angels in the process of the formation of the self in a philosophic tradition. I think of Michel Foucault’s reasoning on the “epimeleia heautou”, the care about oneself, an idiom that he picked up from Plato’s dialogue Alcibiades. The English equivalent of the Greek “epimeleia heautou” in common speech is: “take care about yourself”. Ray Pickett referred to this in his wonderful response to Mary Hess’ lecture last Thursday.
Such “care about yourself” includes more than watching out for cars when you cross 55th street.
Plato explains to the young, physically adorable, but uneducated Alcibiades the necessity to get an education, to get training for the political leadership over the city toward which he strives. As a result, the young Alcibiades despairs about the task lying ahead of him. Then Socrates consoles him, saying: but this is not serious, do not panic. After all, you are not fifty (today we would say: you are not ninety), you are young and so you have time. You have the time, not so much simply for learning, but in order to take care about yourself.
What is this care about oneself? It is not about technical knowledge nor is it about a direct access to the truth. Plato locates it between pedagogy and paideia.
The care about oneself evolves around a “culture of the self”, the formation of the self. This is where your academic and spiritual journey at LSTC comes in. Ideally, your seminary education provides you a space for such a care about oneself. And, I assume, the ideal of wisdom relates to this.
The other day, we talked in class about Biblical wisdom’s high esteem for rules of the world. One of the students couldn’t hold back. He used the word that starts with C and the remainder is rap: He insisted: “It’s that! Wisdom is just not helpful, it is not helpful to know how the world works, because its rules don’t work.” I agree that we all experience this gap between the ideal trust in the world of divine rules and the poor existence of our everyday lives.
Yet, the ideal of a faithful person in wisdom, a person who takes care about herself, is not the ivory-towered, worldly innocent nerd who assumes that he or she knows everything.
Instead, wisdom conceptualizes a person who is concerned about herself,
a person who is taking care of herself: and, who in this endeavor, trusts in the heavenly host, ultimately in God as his refuge, as his rock of salvation, as a safe haven for her or his own being.
“He will command his angels, concerning you,
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”.
Think of that not so much as God’s heavenly hosts shielding you against the bullets on one of the most dangerous places in the US, a crossing some blocks west of here.
Think of God’s angels not so much as a German 19th century romantic and catchy metaphor of a bourgeois security, topped with some sugary Friedrich Silcher melody.
Instead, think of God’s angels as your guides through this process of a seminary education. God’s angels who walk with you as you engage in “taking care about yourself”.
Think of God’s angels as your support, when you will tread on the lion of a literal understanding of biblical passages.
Think of how you underwent the trials of your faith in your CPE and remember how you treaded on the young lion of desperation that you could feel in so many moments when you stood at the side of the beds in the hospital.
Think of God’s angels as they guard your personal integrity, as you train yourself to be a pastor: as you learn to step up and to preach, to pray and to comfort others, with your authentic and truly engaged voice.
Think of these angels as present, even in situations you hoped never to be confronted with in your ministry: Cases of domestic violence, a colleague with compulsory behavior, a laid off mother or your decision to engage in a political protest, together with your parish.
Think of these angels as they guide you to reflect upon your call process.
Think of God’s angels as you develop a balance between a down to earth life and a spiritual growth.
Think of God’s angels as allies when you discern and find out what your call is all about.
Think of God’s angels who lead you through the candidacy process so that you may not dash your foot against a stone.
Think of God’s angels who guide you through, as you revise this paper or the sermon for the third time.
If nothing else, think of the angels guidance through the totally obscure assignments of this online class on Israel’s prophets.
Or, to frame this for myself: think of the angels as brave protectors from becoming a heathen or of simply going nuts in this community, when your sisters and brothers engage in such dubious rituals as composter blessings.
You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
So far the preaching in a 19th century style.
I promised to demonstrate three other forms of preaching on this wisdom Psalm 91. Let me delineate these shortly.
A nationalistic preaching of Psalm 91
How would a nationalistic preacher, say in the late thirties/early forties in Germany have preached on Psalm 91? If he dared to talk about an Old Testament text at all, I assume he directed his main attention to the verses 3-8: Here, scripture speaks in a language that he probably understood: It’s all about war!
V 7-8 put it straight:
A thousand will fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand – but it will not come near you!
At war times in the season of lent in 1942, he could have literally alluded to the reality of parish members in the war: Well, that’s what our boys encounter these days, be it in the west, in the east or in the north: enemies surround us, but we will not fall.
Other terminology of nationalistic German thought may come in handy: throw some blood metaphor in about the blood our fathers, the soldiers who fell in the great war from 1916-1918 that need to be revenged. This example certainly shows you the pitfalls to avoid when preaching about Psalm 91.
How did Luther teach on this Psalm?
Luther understood Ps 91 as an admonition to remain in the right faith and not to chose your own paths instead of God’ paths, and not to tempt God.
And, as to the citation in Luke 4, this week’s gospel, Luther sees a story about our call in this: The devil suggests Jesus to throw himself down from the Pinnacle of the temple. The Devil should know that the care of God’s angels will be provided only as long as we follow our call. The word for “call” in German may be translated with “professional call”. Clearly, Luther remarks, it is not our call to fly around in the air like the birds. This is why Jesus answers the devil: “Do not put the Lord, your God to the test.” Luther concludes: If we, however, follow our call and do our duties, we sure can expect that God’s angels will protect us.
The Coen brothers’ movie ends ultimately on a slanting and dark note. Judith’s new lover dies unexpectedly in a car accident, and Larry has to pay for his funeral.
But then, shortly before another ultimate catastrophe is announced, in one sequence, life temporarily turns out alright for Larry: His seemingly ruined marriage is revived in a scene that captures the synagogue’s most festive atmosphere of Danny’s Bar Mitzwah. Judith and Larry listen proudly to their son’s Hebrew reading. Danny, totally stoned from his first joint, staggering climbs up the pulpit and reads from the Torah role on a biblical passage that refers to Israel’s wisdom.
I do not remember exactly through which passage he stammers in the book of Exodus or Deuteronomy. With his voice becoming gradually fiercer as he goes through the text, Danny reads about the ordinances and statues of God, given through Moses, about the observance of the rules of the Torah as it is pointed out in Deuteronomy 5:1: Hear, o Israel, the statutes and Ordinances that I am addressing to you today: you shall learn them and observe them diligently.
Danny’s stammering words about God’s statutes and ordinances can stop all the destructive chaos that Larry experiences. It seems as if these words bring the torment of arrows that fly against Larry to a halt. For this short moment Larry manages to become “A serious man”.
In all the destructive experiences through which you may go, I hope that the wise words of confidence of Psalm 91 enable you to make this wholesome experience in these days of lent.