From the Psalter:
For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish for ever.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 9:18 (BCP Version) – July 14, 2014)
One of the Daily Office versicle-and-response couplets in the suffrages for both Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer is based on this verse of Psalm 9:
V. Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
R. Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
(BCP 1979, Morning, page 98; Evening, page 122)
I’ve always liked that couplet, but over the years I’ve come to believe that it is what (back in the 1960s and ’70s) we used to call “a cop out.” Both the Psalm and the versicle-and-response are in the passive voice. They leave open the questions — by whom might the needy be forgotten? by whom might the hope of the poor be taken away? By God? Not likely. By other human beings? Probably. By we who are singing the Psalm and praying the suffrages? Yep, we’re the ones, but we hide behind that passive voice and fail to take responsibility.
I wonder if Jesus had this psalm in mind when Judas objected to Mary of Bethany anointing his feet:
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (Jn 12:1-8)
The Psalm calls upon God to render justice, “Rise up, O Lord, let not the ungodly have the upper hand; let them be judged before you.” (v. 19, BCP) But how does God do that except through us? If we have the poor with us always, it is only because of inaction on the part of the society within which the poor live. If we always have conflict, it is only because the society in conflict fails to find peace. If we always have fear, it is only because the society which fears has failed to find courage. If we always have hate, it is only because the society which hates has refused to love.
It’s time to give up the passive voice. It’s time to take ownership of our failures and do something about them.
Let us not forget the needy, O Lord.
We shall not take away the hope of the poor.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.