Psalm 41 and Holy Week

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021

As we prepare for Holy Week, we should remember that the early church boldly decided to include in even the early eucharistic liturgies the phrase, “on the night in which he was betrayed.” They are, of course, following the apostle Paul who uses the phrase in 1 Corinthians 11:23 as he gives us that earliest liturgy. The reason, I think, is because betrayal is the sin that hurts the worst. The people of God expected to be hated by their enemies, but they hoped for loyalty from their closest friends. The fact that Jesus was betrayed by one of the Twelve is yet another sign that the passion of Jesus does not begin at Calvary, but was borne throughout His earthly life.

Psalm 41 gives us an insight into this as we prepare for Holy Week. It is the final psalm in Book One of the Psalter and it prepares us for the depth of agony which is present in Book 2 of the Psalms (Psalms 42–59). Psalm 41 begins with a picture of blessedness: “How blessed is the one who considers the poor!” This is one of fifteen psalms that declares what it means to be “blessed” in the eyes of God. The psalm reminds us that as we help the poor and those who are suffering, we are coming closer to the heart of God. The first portion of Psalm 41 gives us a waterfall of verbs that describe how God is the one who delivers us, protects us, keeps us, does not give up on us, and sustains us. And that is just in verses 2 and 3! Then, in classic Psalm fashion (though rarely a feature of any modern hymns), the psalmist turns from the blessedness of God to recall the evil, treachery, and betrayal of his enemies. The psalmist recounts how our enemies plot our destruction, want us to die, break their promises, gossip and whisper about us, mock us when we are ill and lay on our bed dying. Then, when you think it cannot get any worse, the psalmist brings out the worst thing of all: betrayal. In verse 9 the psalmist says, “even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.”

It is this verse from Psalm 41 that is quoted by Jesus about Judas in John 13:18. In fact, this is the verse which introduces that whole discourse in John’s gospel about “one of you will betray me.” Why does Jesus draw us to this psalm? The verse about betrayal is followed by verse 10 which says, “God be gracious to me and raise me up that I may repay them!” This is meant to jolt you. The psalmist goes to the place of vengeance. But the gospel of Jesus Christ interrupts this. Rather than Jesus repaying His enemies and getting even with those who mocked and betrayed Him, He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is the good news of the gospel! We are living in the interruption of God’s vengeance. We are living in the day of mercy and grace. In due course of time, Judgment Day will come on those who plot and scheme against God and His people. The book of Revelation makes that clear. But, we are in the great season of mercy and grace. This is not the time for vengeance. This is the time for reconciliation and preparing people for the blessed return of Christ. In this day of violence and division and hatred and betrayal, let us remember that we are now in the day of God’s favor. Our job is to mend the broken, heal the sick, give recovery of sight to the blind, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Holy Week is God’s plan to insert an offer of grace and mercy into the certainty of the judgment we deserved. Thanks be to God!