Psalm 51: Have Mercy on Me, O God

Every Friday in our morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours we pray Psalm 51. “Have mercy on me, O God, in your kindness. In your compassion wipe out my offense.” It’s one of the most important prayers we say.  

In a sermon on this psalm, St. Augustine says that unfortunately people can be so convinced they’re living good lives that they become blind to their own faults, and in their blindness they become quicker to see the faults of others rather than their own. There’s evil in life, so if it’s not in us it must be out there in others. 

Remember the story of King David, who is associated with this psalm. He was quick to see the man Prophet Nathan described to him as worthy of death; but he didn’t see himself as the guilty one.  

Psalm 51 reminds us we’re sinners and we should know our sins and not forget them. “My offenses truly I know them, and my sin is always before me.” 

We should know our sins and keep them always before us, our psalm says, but it goes on to say that God is the one who brings that knowledge about in us. We can’t know ourselves and our sins completely on our own, however honest and thorough we may be about it. Only God can bring us knowledge of ourselves. 

In their commentaries on this psalm, scholars point out that there are only few lines in this psalm that speak about what we do to know our sins. 

The psalm is mostly concerned with asking God’s help. “You love truth in the heart, then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.”

We ask in this psalm for the merciful help of God, to create a pure heart and a steadfast spirit in us, to wash us and sprinkle us with hyssop that we may be clean. St. Augustine says that hyssop is a plant that clings to rocks; it is at home in hard places, like the human heart. 

We ask for a ‘spirit of joy”, a “spirit of fervor” to do what we’re called to do in this life. It’s not just our recreation we ask for. The walls of Jerusalem, the world around us, are waiting to be rebuilt and we’re called to rebuild them with God’s help.

In yesterday’s reading from John’s Gospel Jesus said we are all taught by God. How does God teach us how to live? God teaches us through his Word, through the example and the teachings of Jesus, through the teachings of his church.

But God also teaches us through the signs of the times. We have to let the times teach us, and that’s not easy.

How can we learn from the pandemic we going through, from the threat of climate change, from the challenge of racism in our society? 

We’re not onlookers before these issues, watching them from a distance.  They’re like the challenge Nathan raised before David. Each of these issues ask us to answer for ourselves. What about me? 

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