Living in the Tension: Seeing Psalm 73 and the Prodigal Son in Dialogue

Who was Asaph?
A Levite and dependent of Gershon, the Son of Levi
An appointed member in the house of God
A seer or prophet who led a group of skilled poets and singers
The superscription attributed to Psalms 73-83.

I got interested specifically 8n Psalm 73 when I came across scholar Walter Brueggemann making the case for it as the inspiration for Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal (Lost) Son.

A couple interesting notes:
1Surely God is good to Israel,
    to those who are pure in heart.

2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

At the front of this Psalm we see the disconnect between his experience of suffering and the prosperity that he sees in “the wicked”. As is common to passages like these, the he is meant to evoke the story of Israel, aligning  “his” experience with the whole.

Now consider that the prodigal son symbolizes a scattered Israel seeking this prosperity in the far off lands, as it says. “4 They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong 5 They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.”

‘This is what the wicked are like—
    always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.”

This section of the Psalm links the prosperity with their pride, which leads them to say “They say, “How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?” As the Psalmist submits, “Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth.”

Now consider the disconnect between the inheritance in the prodigal son and a life pursuing the allures of such prosperity in the world. As the Psalmist says, their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth… “10 Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance.”

This leads the Psalmist to lament.
13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

And yet, the Psalmist insists, “15 If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children. 16 When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply 17 till I entered the sanctuary of God then I understood their final destiny.”

So what is the destiny?
18 Surely you place them on slippery ground;
    you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed,
    completely swept away by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes;
    when you arise, Lord,
    you will despise them as fantasies.

Who is “they” in this passage. It’s important to remember the appeal in the beginning of the passage- surely God is good to “Israel”- and the ensuing point of tension- Israel is not prospering according to the promise afforded by God while the nations they were called out of and set apart from are. Similarly we find the concern- the personal allure the “he” in this passage is resisting and speaking out again as the voice of Israel- surely God’s promises are true and that faithfulness to God in the face of suffering is not in vain. The sense here and elsewhere in the story of Asaph is two fold- the prosperity of the surrounding nations and the temptation for Israel to give in to its allure.

In this light, this lament is not simply an insistence that God will destroy Israel’s enemies. More so its about showing that one’s trust in the promises of God proves true.  It’s about helping to make sense of continued faithfulness when they do not. Here the Psalmist is drawing out the contrast not between good and wicked people but two different realities and different views of property- one that fades with its fleshly passions and one that gets swept up in the promised redemptive work of God. To attach oneself, or for Israel to attach itself to that which fades is to find itself handed a promise that inevitably is defined by terror, ruin, destruction based on lies (fantasies).

Now, cast this in to the light of the Prodigal (Lost) Son. We find a contrast between the son spending his inheritance in the allure of those far off places and its promise of prosperity, only to find that it all fades. Now hear the following words of the Psalmist and imagine them in the mouth of the older son in the parable:

23 Yet I am always with you;
    you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.

Such a claim, especially when attached to the voice of Israel, evokes a vision of promise and hope in that which does not fade- heaven is a synonym for kingdom of God. And this is followed by the following proclamation:

27 Those who are far from you will perish;
    you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
    I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
    I will tell of all your deeds.

If we are imagining these words on the lips of the older son in the parable, who is representative of the Jewish religious leaders, the very ones calling for necessary Reform and a renewed call to faithfulness in the face of Rome and cohabitation with the allure of such prosperity, we can perhaps begin to see how Jesus’ story cuts through the tension of Psalm 73 by recasting the Psalmists hopeful lament and proclamation in the light of God’s redemptive work in Him as the fulfillment of God’s promised restoration. In the face of a scattered Israel and the Pharisees attempt to create clear lines between the enemy and the faithful here we find a story of Gods faithful “finding” of a lost Israel dispersed throughout a kingdom ruled by Rome and a corrupted Temple aligned with its promise of prosperity. The promise is not simply an inheritance handed to the faithful ones (the religious leaders), it is an inheritance rooted in the whole of Israel’s story. Thus the prodigals the religious leaders are complaining about (how can Jesus eat with such tax collectors and sinners) are demonstrative of the promised arrival of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Careful relders then will note how criticisms of the older son (religious leaders or pharisees) throughout the Gospels are directly connected to their resistance of how God’s promise gets fulfilled, with the reclamation of the story of Israel in the person and work of Jesus setting the stage for the movement of the kingdom into all the earth. As Jesus says consistently in the Gospels, the very promise which motivates these religious leaders to faithfulness is the thing they are resisting, just as the older son does. Psalm 73 can help demonstrate why this resistance surfaces, giving us context and motivation for it, and perhaps growing empathy where we are likely prone to the very same things in our own place and time.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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