Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 49) transports me to a dark, cold space shared by a distinguished group of people named Leo, Go-Hanazono, Peter, John, Paul, Bartolome, and Rama. Where is that dark, cold space? It is the earth, the six-feet-under stratum of clay, where each of these people lays entombed. What distinguishes this particular list of names? For one thing, these were once household names to many people; these were people for whom buildings and highways and counties and newborns were named after. They were, to be precise, a Byzantine Emperor (Leo), a Japanese Emperor (Go), a Russian Czar (Peter), a US President (John), a US Senator (Paul), a King of Spain (Bartolome), and a Prime Minister of India (Rama). And why this particular list of dead and buried dignitaries? Interestingly, they all died and started their subterranean journey on the exact same day. Well, to be more precise, they all died on the same date – today’s date, January 18. (That it took place over the span of more than 1500 years is a minor detail). And today, on the anniversary of their death, is there anyone around who really knows or cares anything about Leo I or Peter II or John Tyler? The buildings named after them have long crumbled, the roads named after them long re-named. Perhaps if we leave the realm of world leadership and look at some other figures whose bones entered the clay on this date, there might be more interest and knowledge – people are still reading Rudyard Kipling’s books, some people are still imitating Goose Tatum’s basketball wizardry, and some are still trying to master the trickery of pool shark Minnesota Fats. But it won’t be long before their names will be just as obscure. As for the four highly celebrated poets also on the January 18 list, their lines have long faded and the earth has them as well; they are food for worms as Robin Williams so eloquently put it in Dead Poets Society.
Such is the theme of today’s dead poet, one of the Sons of Korah who penned the 49th Psalm. He entered into the fray of class warfare and class envy that was raging in his day, as the rich (whom he characterizes as wicked deceivers) were boasting of their superiority and the poor were struggling to survive. The Son of Korah grabbed a bullhorn and shouted his poem for all the world to hear, rich and poor alike. He began with a riddle of sorts: Why should we be afraid of the rich and powerful, when they’re going to wind up in the ground as poor as dirt like everybody else? It was his version of you can’t take it with you. They might have palaces and coliseums named after them, but what will that matter to them when they go where the sun don’t shine and start pushing up petunias? And then he shifted gears and started preaching to the choir, the folks who didn’t worry about getting rich or protecting their wealth, the folks who put their stock in grace and the love of God. He counted himself among these and laid out his hope: Listen, I’m gonna die, too, but God will redeem me, will rescue me from the realm of the dead. I may be poor as dirt now, but when it’s all over God will dig me out of the dirt and I’ll be the one flying high. So there, he says to his audience, don’t be overawed by the high and mighty, the rich and powerful. Their splendor won’t descend into the earth with them. The poet would have us focus instead on love – that’s the many splendored thing that you can take with you, that’s your ticket out of the ground.
This Psalm shows us that we’re not the first generation to have culture wars over the excesses of concentrated wealth. We’re not the first generation to have people wave a picket sign or grab a bullhorn and shout out that all the arrogance of power is nothing more than a load of bull. And we’re not the first generation to see the truth of the psalmist come to pass – the upper class of this world do enter the earth as penniless as beggars, and they leave their trust funds to dwindle and their palaces to crumble and their splendor to fade from memory. And people of faith who place their trust in a more splendid fund of love and grace can continue to claim to be in a class of their own, the class of those promised a redemption and resurrection from the dark and cold home of worms and petunia roots.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.