Augustine on Psalm 40
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ALMIGHTY and merciful God, of whose gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service; Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so run to thy heavenly promises, that we fail not finally to attain the same; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Source of Collect: Bishop Leo I [440-461] Sacramentary.
He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clayand set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.CommentIn Leo's Collect we have the essence of the Gospel, the good news of God's free gift to his faithful. God gives his faithful the ability to render unto him "true and laudable service".I believe the converse is also true, that without God's help, without this gift, we can do nothing that is pleasing to him. This gift is that amazing grace that comes, not based on our achievements in this world, but based on God's will. I think of the man in today's Gospel beaten by the roadside. The Samaritan did not rescue him based on any merit, but rather on account of his free gift of compassion, his will to do justice and righteousness. The beaten man was unconscious, and likely near death. He could do nothing for himself. He could not lift himself up. He could not go along with the Samaritan to help him. He could not recover of his own will.Likewise in Psalm 40 that we study today we hear David sing of God's amazing graceHe brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clayand set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.
Augustine writes of this verse.
And what hath He accomplished for thee? What hath He done for thee? "He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings" (ver. 2). He hath given us great blessings already: and still He is our debtor; but let him who hath this part of the debt repaid already, believe that the rest will be also, seeing that he ought to have believed even before he received anything. Our Lord has employed facts themselves to persuade us, that He is a faithful promiser, a liberal giver. What then has He already done? "He has brought me out of a horrible pit." What horrible pit is that? It is the depth of iniquity, from the lusts of the flesh, for this is meant by "the miry clay." Whence hath He brought thee out? Out of a certain deep, out of which thou criedst out in another Psalm, "Out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord." And those who are already "crying out of the deep," are not absolutely in the lowest deep: the very act of crying is already lifting them up. There are some deeper in the deep, who do not even perceive themselves to be in the deep. Such are those who are proud despisers, not pious entreaters for pardon; not tearful criers for mercy: but such as Scripture thus describes. "The sinner when he comes into the depth of evil despiseth." For he is deeper in the deep, who is not satisfied with being a sinner, unless instead of confessing he even defends his sins. But he who has already "cried out of the deep," hath already lifted up his head in order that he might "cry out of the deep," has been heard already, and has been "brought out of the horrible pit, and out of the mire and clay." He already has faith, which he had not before; he has hope, which he was before without; he now walks in Christ, who before used to go astray in the devil. For on that account it is that he says, "He hath set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings." Now "that Rock was Christ." Supposing that we are "upon the rock," and that our "goings are ordered," still it is necessary that we continue to walk; that we advance to something farther. For what did the Apostle Paul say when now upon the Rock, when his "goings had now been established"? "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended." What then has been done for thee, if thou hast not apprehended? On what account dost thou return thanks, saying, "But I have obtained mercy"? Because his goings are now established, because he now walks on the Rock?...Therefore, when he was saying, "I press forward toward the prize of my high calling," because "his feet were now set on the Rock," and "his goings were ordered," because he was now walking on the right way, he had something to return thanks for; something to ask for still; returning thanks for what he had received already, while he was claiming that which still remained due. For what things already received was he giving thanks? For the remission of sins, for the illumination of faith; for the strong support of hope, for the fire of charity. But in what respects had he still a claim of debt on the Lord? "Henceforth," he says, "there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness." There is therefore something due me still. What is it that is due? "A crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day." He was at first a loving Father to "bring him forth from the horrible pit;" to forgive his sins, to rescue him from "the mire and clay;" hereafter he will be a "righteous Judge," requiting to him walking rightly, what He promised; to him (I say), unto whom He had at the first granted that power to walk rightly. He then as a "righteous Judge" will repay; but whom will he repay? "He that endureth unto the end, the same shall be saved."I am reminded of the fight between Augustine and Pelagius over this very issue. Augstine shows how God set the standard, resucues us from sin, opens our ears to his will, then gives us the ability to do that which he has commanded us to do. This doctrine became a standard in the church with the Council of Orange: God's grace preceding, sanctifying, and proceeding with us. It may be that Leo and his men, who were contemporaries of Augustine, had incorporated this doctrine of grace in today's collect.As Augustine wrote and Pelagius contested:"Command what thy will; and give what thy command."Finis
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