Synonymous Parallelisms

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, SEptember 3rd, 2017

There’s a whole bunch of stuff that I once learned in school or college that I could fairly easily have written a paper about without too much trouble at the time but about which I now have only the most minimal clue now. Stuff which at the time seemed really important to know I find that I managed to successfully get through life without. As someone wittier than I points out, “only in math problems could you buy 60 cantaloupes and no one would ask what the hell is wrong with you.”


All that stuff I once knew. Maybe you still do. Raise your hand if you know about any of this stuff I once knew about… maybe you can tell me about it later. The Von Schlieffen Plan, mononucleic acid, the meaning of the poem ‘The Snake’ by DH Lawrence.

On the face of it, then, you’d think that I wouldn’t have remembered a class in undergrad Old Testament studies about synonymous parallelisms in the Psalms. Sounds pretty esoteric, doesn’t it? I think that the reason I still remember it is because I found it so fascinating. Let me tell you about it.

Take a look at today's psalm – Psalm 26 – and you may notice that it follows a particular literary form. Actually, several. But one of those literary devices in it is the synonymous parallelism. It sounds complicated but all it means is this: that in most verses the first half of the verse says something, and then the second half says exactly the same thing but in a different way. In other words, the first half parallels the second half, and does so by using synonyms. 

OK, big deal, you might think. So what? But here’s the thing. What really captivated me in that OT class way back then, and still captivates me now is this: that by knowing what might be meant by one word or clause we can then work out what the other parallel word or clause means.

Let’s take verse 4: “I do not sit with the worthless * nor do I consort with hypocrites.” What this tells us is that, for the writer of this psalm, ‘hypocrisy’ is synonymous with ‘worthlessness’;

Or take verse 6: “I wash my hands in innocence, * and go around your altar, O Lord.” So we learn that in order to go round the altar of the Lord, one is first required to go through a ritual handwashing process.

Or verse 2: “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; * test my heart and mind.” ‘Me’ is parallels with ‘heart and mind’, telling us that the notion of the soul was very undeveloped in theology at that time. Scholars know that at that time, the soul was not generally seen as a distinct entity from the body and mind, and studying the literary devices like synonymous parallelisms is a valuable tool for those scholars to gain new insights. 

Flick through the book of Psalms sometime and think of this literary device it as a key that unlocks stuff you didn’t know before. Ever since that class way back, every time I’ve read a Psalm, I’ve looked for these parallels and I’ve found the Psalms a much richer experience as a result.

Of course, it wasn’t just the Psalms that displayed this kind of composition. You’ll find it in what we call the ‘Wisdom Literature’: biblical books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs. So it was an established literary form from the time of those books – many hundreds of years before Christ, and right up into the centuries after Christ. So it is not surprising that the Apostle Paul used this kind of construction in his writings. He was, let’s not forget, a traditional Jewish scholar. Before his conversion to Christianity, he was a very committed and senior Pharisee – it would be fair to say that he was an uber-keen Bible nerd. And his intense Jewish learning would of course have stayed with him.

In today’s first reading, from Paul’s letter to the fledgling Christian community in Rome, we find that traditional literary construction in some of the verses. The synonymous parallelism. Take a look at it. The second of the verses: “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor”. So if we want to get some kind of clue about what Paul’s understanding of what mutual affection might consist of, then we can infer that it involves ‘showing honor’. At one level, that might seem obvious, but at another level, if I asked you to define your own understanding of ‘mutual affection’ chances are that you might not use words like ‘honor’.

OK, so far, so interesting (I hope).

Now let’s return to the Psalm and take another look at it, this time as a whole, and through the lens of our own theology and psychology. For sure, this Psalm is nicely put together, with good meter and when we read it, which we probably do a little bit on autopilot, we might think, “oh, yeah, that sounds good. Not consorting with evil doers, walking in integrity, that kind of stuff, yes, all very good.”

But take a closer look. 

You know, I really don’t like this Psalm. For me, it really grates. It really goes against my theology. I think that it is at odds with what Christ would have us do. And as for the psychology: I think it’s the written-down self-justification of someone who’s either smug or passive-aggressive. 

I realize that this is a somewhat provocative thing to say, so let me explain my thoughts. I think that this Psalm is by someone who thinks they deserve to be rewarded by God simply on the basis of having followed all the rules. In fact, so sure is this person that they have not broken a single statute in the law book that they’re willing to challenge God to test them on it. They have washed their hands before going to the altar, they have sung the right songs, and they have studiously avoided any kind of contact with worthless hypocrites. Worst of all, they have exempted themselves from any criticism. They have judged themselves worthy and are asking God to rubber-stamp it. Verse 1: “Rubber-stamp me and sign in the box, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity and therefore I am good to go”. They have not noticed the irony. That calling someone a hypocrite is hypocritical.

'The Pharisees Question Jesus' by James Tissot

'The Pharisees Question Jesus' by James Tissot

This is the kind of thinking that the Apostle Paul was brought up in. Read this Psalm and countless others like it, and you can see how the Pharisees were conditioned to think. And it is easy to see, then, how scandalized they were by Jesus behavior. This is why I say that this Psalm is at odds with what Christ would do – and would have us do. And this is why Jesus had so many run-ins with the Pharisees. Because Jesus was turning the tables over in the temple. He was turning this Psalm on its head. Let’s not forget that Jesus was as much a Jewish scholar as Paul. He was a rabbi, after all. A rabbi who was going right against the teaching of this psalm. Here was someone who made a conscious decision TO sit with the so-called ‘worthless’ – those that society saw as hypocrites, evil-doers. Jesus makes the revolutionary point that all of us are in some ways worthless, in some ways hypocritical, in some ways wicked.

Jesus was indeed revolutionary. And so was Paul. It is not surprising that after his conversion, Paul was subject to death threats. Stoned. Imprisoned. He had rejected the notion that we were justified in the eyes of God by keeping all the rules and amassing points with God by doing lots of pious things. 

One of the reasons that I imagine that the lectionary compilers put this Psalm with this reading today is because it illustrates how comprehensively Christ had changed the old order of things. 

Nowhere is this starker and plainer than at the end of the first paragraph. “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” And this is why knowing about synonymous parallelism is so cool. Because what we learn is that not only do we look after the saints, and that we look after the strangers but – and this is the really revolutionary bit – the saints ARE the strangers. And the strangers ARE the saints. There’s a bit of the stranger in all of us, and there’s a bit of the saint in all of us. But more than that, everyone we meet – whether or not we know them – whatever their circumstances, however they behave, whether or not we like them – everyone we meet is one of the saints – God’s holy people, made in God’s very image.

Want to know what God looks like? Just look at the person sitting next to you. Or – just as important - look in the mirror.

God has made us in his image. If we really stop to think what that means, its implications are extraordinary. When we wound another person, we wound God. Equally, when we treat others with dignity and kindness we honor God.

The old cliché that ‘strangers are friends that you haven’t yet met’ is a cliché because it’s true. Or it ought to be. So I urge you, wherever you are these coming weeks – on a cramped and odiferous subway train in the city, in DeCicco’s, in the doctor’s office, on Interstate 287 – to remember that everyone you see is made in the image of God, and even though you might not know them, they are one of the saints, and waiting for our hospitality.

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