The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Can We Just Keep The Nice Bits?

Welcome to Psalm 149 – the one that might turn you into a Marcionite

by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Psalm Reading: Psalm 149

For Sunday, November 7, 2010 Year C - All Saints

You gotta love a party psalm. Everyone coming together to sing praises to God; the good, faithful people of God rejoicing in song and dance; women in bangles and swirling dresses, maidens playing lyres, children banging tambourines. I can just see it: God’s people all singing joyful hymns and praises to God. It’s a delightful scene.

If Only

If only we could end at verse 6a. If only. But instead we are stuck with a verse that begins with “Let the high praise of God be in their throats” and ends with “a two-edged sword in their hands.” In Psalm 149 we basically go from joy and song and dance to swords and vengeance and chains.

So, on All Saints Day, the day in which we celebrate the heroes of the faith perhaps we do well to ask a couple hard questions, like: Why can’t Psalm 149 end at verse 6a?

Praise AND…

How is it that we sing a psalm that is at once about praise AND vengeance, joy AND punishment, tambourines AND fetters? We like our religion to be served to us warm and cozy, not violent and bloody − especially since we are more spiritually evolved than that now. We aren’t as savage as were our ancestors in the faith, right? Right. Well… unless you look in our hearts.

Perhaps our physical survival doesn’t necessitate the same need for violence at our now seemingly innocent hands (we have others carry that out in our names). But who hasn’t wanted retribution for wrongs; who hasn’t wanted to hurt those who hurt us; who hasn’t wanted a sword in hand at one point or another?

The Issue of Sainthood

And as we ask questions about the not-very-PC nature of the psalms on this feast of All Saints we easily turn to the issue of sainthood itself. It’s easy to look at the Saints − the real ones, you know the capital “S” ones like Saint Paul, Saint Mary, Saint Francis − and see them as what we think we should be if we were really good Christians. They are us if we were really, really, good and never, never, bad. Right?

It was amazing a couple years back to see the public’s reaction when the journals of Mother Teresa came out which portrayed her as a doubting and cranky person, maybe a little like us. We want real saints to be very much not like us. But knowing, for instance, that Saint Peter, on whom Christ built the church, is the same guy who denied he even knew him is actually hopeful for us. We may be tempted to elevate the saints to the point that they bear little resemblance to flawed humans, but in the end, that doesn’t point to the grace of God nearly as much as having some buffoon like Peter being the guy on whom the church is built.

The Hardest Question

We may want the Psalms to reflect a cleaned up version of ourselves, like the “guest towels” our moms put out only for company, but that’s just not reality. Neither is it helpful. In a world where destruction, war and terror IS wrought by people who have the praise of God in their mouths and a sword in their hands how helpful is this psalm?

Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. She is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television (Seabury, 2008) and blogs at and Jim Wallis’ Nobody really believes she’s an ordained pastor in the ELCA. Maybe it’s the sleeve tattoos or the fact that she swears like a truck driver. Either way…she’s fine with it. Nadia lives in Denver with her family of four.


  1. Scott White says:

    “How helpful is this psalm?” is a good question.

    Augustine (and on quick scan, many of the early fathers) spiritualized the way the second half of the psalm goes. Helpful, but different from its original meaning.

    I land on this. I am not a fighter. There is too much killing and too much killing by religious people. And yet, maybe there just comes a time when the righteous have to take the sword to the evil. A thought which is absolutely fraught with peril (the righteous better quickly put the sword down when it’s over). Fraught especially with having to think of one’s self as righteous. And yet, and yet. Hitler, Amin, Stalin, and their contemporaries today just have to go.

    “The judgment written” refers to scripture; in our day would mean the careful discernment of God’s will by the church. More difficulty! And yet, I think it’s a job of the church.

    Anyway thanks for wrestling with a tough psalm. Perhaps in the wrestling is the helpfulness.

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