Third Wednesday of Advent
December 14, 2011
Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave. When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own. Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish. Such is the fate of the foolhardy, the end of those who are pleased with their lot. Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. (Psalm 49:5-15)
We human beings have been trying to buy our way out of death for a long time. Much of our contemporary debates about national healthcare are about every person’s inalienable right to keep disease, injury, and death from having their way with us. While we all might celebrate the wonders of medical science that have made many diseases either non-threatening or merely inconvenient, the result is that we deal with premature death much less frequently than we would have a hundred years ago. We’ll pay whatever is necessary to keep death at bay.
The psalmist speaks of the illusion that wealth can ultimately keep the rich from the same fate that awaits all human beings: death. Everyone probably understands this, but it’s difficult to accept the fact that even the most accomplished, productive life ends at the grave, making all that has been created by that person’s effort relevant only to the heirs. The grave—Sheol—has a room reserved for everyone who is born on planet earth.
But the psalmist anticipates something more than a stop sign at life’s end. People may not be able to buy their way out of death, but God will on day bring a rescue from the grave. The rescue is described in terms of a ransom—a price paid to retrieve someone from the clutches of kidnappers or other enemies. The psalmist sees that rescue coming, and hopes in it.
This ransom language would find its way into Jesus’ reflection on his own coming into the world:
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
In the coming of Jesus, people would once again anticipate God’s rescue from the destructive domination of sin and the grave that is its end. The truth will come out: We humans don’t have what it takes to save ourselves; it is God who takes the loving initiative to ransom us from the grave.