19 October 2009

A Reflection on Psalm 131

Rev. Jean Southard


O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,

my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things

too great and marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

like a weaned child with its mother;

my soul is like the weaned child

that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord

from this time on and forevermore.

I grew up in the era of black and white TV, an age when Groucho Marx and Ed Sullivan ruled the airwaves and the episodes of “I Love Lucy” were not reruns. It was commonplace to hear Groucho sound surprised when a lovely blonde woman gave a correct answer on his quiz show. He would often ask in wonderment, “How did a pretty girl like you get to be so smart?” In a test of wills with her husband Ricky, Lucy never won outright, but had to get her way by scheming and conniving behind his back, which sometimes resulted in his tipping her over his knee for a hard spanking. What may surprise you is that I never questioned the appropriateness of that at the time. In my own household, the man was King. Upon reaching driving age, my older brother received a car. My sister and I did not. It never occurred to us to complain. It was only later, looking back through the lens of the women’s movement, that I found I could no longer tolerate such blatant assaults on the rights and dignity of women.

Psalm 131 appears to be written by a woman. Like me in my earlier life, she lived in an era when it probably never entered her mind to question the restricted role she was expected to play. She considered it a virtue to keep her eyes downcast and to leave the heavy theological arguments to the men. She had bought the line that she shouldn’t trouble her pretty little head with such matters. Her job was to bake the bread, sweep the hearth, tend to the kids, and when it came time to go up to Jerusalem for the great feasts, to stay back with the other women and children while the men went into the temple to offer their sacrifices for worship.

Women were not the only ones who were kept out of the temple. Men whose bodies were not perfect, who were blind or lame, disfigured in some way, perhaps with a cleft lip or palate, or with improperly reset broken limbs, with crushed testicles, dwarfism or hunched backs, with diseases of the skin, were not allowed to present offerings in the temple either. Women were in the category of physically imperfect men, and all were held away from God as though their presence would somehow contaminate God; or was it feared that God’s fiery wrath might consume these thought-to-be-inferior men?

For whatever reason the barrier was up, the temple was off limits, God was in “his” throne room and they were to keep their distance. But God is not bound by the cramped and limiting ways of humankind, for while the psalmist was demurely keeping her eyes downcast and thinking that she must think only lowly woman-thoughts, God’s own unbound liberating presence came to embrace her soul, as a mother wraps comforting and encouraging arms around a weaned child, giving her hope.

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