Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Old Testament. There is a reason for this. The Psalm is organized as an acrostic, which simply means each stanza consisting of 8 verses begins with one of the 22 letters that form the Hebrew alphabet. The order is consecutive. Psalm 119 begins its first verse with the letter; we know as alpha and finishes with a set of verses beginning with the last letter omega.
When I was younger, I, like many of you, were taught to memorize verse, songs, poems, etc., using some sort of pattern. Even the non-lyrical pieces might be set to music…like the way in which most of us learned our alphabet…“A,b,c,d,e,f,g…h,i,j,k,l,m,n,o,p…q,r,s,….t,u,v,…w,x, y and z. Now I know my ABC’s, Next time, won’t you sing with me.” It was a fun way to begin the task of learning to read and though it had a humorous element, the song, its lesson and how well we adopted the message could very well determine how well we would begin to read.
Psalm 119 is a joyous message centered on the truth of God’s law guiding and directing the lives of God’s people. Rather than restrictive, the precepts or statues of God are intended to bring about a degree of contentment in one’s life and to give the receiver of the Law true joy. For the Jewish people, the Torah, God’s Law was a gift signifying God’s intention and desire to be in relationship with them. God had created humanity, breathed life into us, and continues to sustain our lives through a steady presence, a steadying presence of God. One commentator offers the remark…
“This complex psalm…celebrates the place of Torah in the life of Israel. Torah is best translated as ‘instruction’ rather than ‘law.’ It is a gift from God inviting us to engage in holy play!”
Our Alphabet song might not be considered “holy play” but it is playful and its intention is to teach us our letters giving us the opportunity, throughout our lives, to bask in the pleasures of reading literature and learning new concepts. In a similar way, Psalm 119 is an invitation to learn a way to live, which is couched in a kind of singsong rhythm formed through the use of the Hebrew alphabet. It balances the concept of law with its deeply serious understanding of how the law creates and helps to maintain God’s place in the life of God’s people. It is playful but with a serious purpose.
In general, it would safe to say, we don’t often think of applied law as playful or freeing. In fact, laws in our understanding may seem restrictive and even punitive at times. For example, a law, which penalizes someone for failing to pay his or her due tax, will certainly not feel personally benefited, at least in the short term. But unpaid tax of one or more in our society could be directly linked to unfunded or underfunded road care, educational needs, social and economic helps, which will, over time effect all of us.
Though laws have a necessary place in our society, they can also be abused. For example laws, which discriminate against someone because of race, color, gender, sexual orientation, or age have been unfortunate aspects of our tendency as human beings to fall from grace; they are too much a part of our history. We are, as a country and a people, established on a principle of freedom and liberty for all. We recognize how far from the mark we have slid when misplaced or damaging laws rule rather than the kinds of laws, which contribute to the care and welfare of all our citizens. Most recently, we have seen how the misinterpretation of a law creates a wave of subsequent infractions forcing our country and our humanity to spin on its own prejudicial top. The recent acts of violence against unarmed young men of color such as, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, point to the way law has contributed to codifying fear and prejudice rather than working toward a check against these damaging human tendencies.
We may find it difficult to understand the sense behind a psalm like 119, which illustrates the love of God’s law as a means to establish and strengthen our relationship to God and God’s relationship to us. The psalm points us to the attributes of ideal perfection and holiness both of which seem unreachable and unrealistic. And, no doubt, they are. And, yet, not to have something to strive for, not to imagine the vistas beyond the mountain edge of our sight and insight undervalues our appreciation for what God can and is doing to change hearts and to create hope. If we take too small a step in our acceptance of God’s presence in our lives, we will never really journey very far down (or up) the path that leads to a fuller, deeper, richer faith.
John Wesley, both a founder of Methodism and a theologian in his own right, describes striving toward perfection as a precursor to salvation while recognizing how unavoidable God’s grace is in accomplishing both perfection and our salvation. It is by God’s grace alone, we find the way toward perfection and are the recipients of a saving faith. But Wesley also placed a high regard on the act of obedience to God and God’s law. In a commentary about this aspect of our theology and our Methodist faith, one thought is stated this way:
“Wesley maintains that perfection is the result of God’s grace (PA 367, 374, 386)—he refers to it as “the second gift (PA 393)”—and that it is received only by faith (PA 382-3, 393; SW 53). However, he also notes that we are to seek perfection with diligent obedience, and cannot keep it without the same.
In more than one moment of teaching and instruction with his disciples, Jesus continually called for a concise – to the point – law of love. He did so by gathering the multitude of laws stated in the Leviticus and elsewhere in the Old Testament and conflated them into one not so simple expectation and request: “Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Just sentences above this bit of instruction, Christ states how one must achieve perfection: Love enemy and friend alike. Offer the other cheek when someone strikes you. Avoid committing evil in response to evil perpetrated against you. Now, none of this is easy but I do wonder, is there joy in hurting someone who hurts you. Can any of us find joy or contentment or peace when what we do in response to another’s sin against us is beyond what God would ask of us or want from us. Human made laws aside, court decisions justifiable or not, can we find a reason to celebrate or to be filled with joy. That is rarely if ever the outcome. Only in seeking out God’s grace and love, only in lay aside our need to hurt someone who has hurt us, only in following the example of Jesus Christ ever striving for the perfection of obedience to a loving God can we ever find our peace, and the hope of a continued relationship with a God who forgives and invites us to forgive too. So, though I know, how difficult it is to live life choosing to follow, seeking out perfection and welcoming the most difficult of laws, the law of Love, I also know our way to solve the problems of human insult achieves little or nothing. It will not lead us any closer to the seemingly impossible ideal of perfection nor will it increase our faith in the God of our lives. I end with a quote from Barbara Essex, Minister of Higher Education and Theological Education for the United Church of Christ in Cleveland Ohio. Essex simply says:
“In his Sermon on the Mount (the lengthy and climatic moment in which Christ offered instruction to his followers), Jesus lets us eavesdrop on his instructions to the disciples. We too are encouraged to live as sisters and brothers in God’s real. ‘Be perfect’ is not an indictment; it is a promise that carries the possibility that we may love the world as God has loved us – fully, richly, abundantly, and completely.” May it be so. Amen
 Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, pp. 345-46, Paul Junggap Huh
 Matthew 5:48
 Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Barbara J. Essex, 384.