It is often suggested that the Church needs to be more inclusive and welcoming of sinners, rather than calling on them to turn away from their sins.
Standing up and fighting for our faith is even labeled by some as 'spiritual warmongering'!
Such attitudes aren’t easy to reconcile with the Gospel, for Christ calls us to turn away from sin, not to embrace it, and to fight for what is right.
Zeal consumes me
In the previous stanza, the psalmist ended up weeping for his own sins. Here however the psalmist is concerned over the actions and fate of others. The central verse is 139:
Tabéscere me fecit zelus meus: quia oblíti sunt verba tua inimíci mei.
My zeal consumes me, because my foes forget thy words
So today I want to look at the delicate balance between a healthy zeal, that embraces the spiritual works of mercy advocated in today’s stanza of Psalm 118, of instructing the ignorant and admonishing sinners; the sin of cowardice in failing to teach at all; and the evil zeal of bitterness.
Zeal for the law of the Lord is a virtue
Verse 139 echoes the verse of Psalm 68 (69) applied to Our Lord in the New Testament in relation to his cleansing of the Temple:
In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, "Take these things away; you shall not make my Father's house a house of trade." His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for thy house will consume me." Jn 2
But zeal can be both good and bad:
“Zeal is used in both the bad sense and the good sense; in the bad sense, as in: "Zeal and envy have devoured the house of Jacob"; and again, we read in the Acts of the Apostles: When they saw this, the Jews -were filled-with zeal, and they laid their hands on the apostles. This kind of zeal always leads to sins, lays ambushes, cuts off the path to salvation.”
Too often we see this evil zeal today in those who attack the bishops for defending the faith, and claim some superior knowledge to that of the Pope as to what Vatican II is meant to mean to us.
Good zeal can seem extremist at times, as Cassiodorus comments:
“The word is used in the good sense: The zeal of thy house has consumed me and Elias says: With zeal I have been zealous for the Lord God of hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant,." Then too Phineas the priest, on seeing the Israelite engaged in sexual intercourse with the Moabite woman, in zeal for the Lord's command ran them both through with the sword." His zeal was so effective that it alone diverted the Lord's anger. Indeed, this kind of zeal bestows salvation, keeps faith, maintains chastity and protects God's Church with splendid vigour.”
The marks of good zeal
The verses of this stanza point to some of the distinguishing marks of a healthy zeal for God, namely that it starts from the realization that we are all sinners (previous stanza), who need God’s truth and justice as a guide (v137-138, 142) and is fired up by love of God and meditation on his law (140-144).
137 Justus es, Dómine: * et rectum judícium tuum.
You are just, O Lord: and your judgment is right.
138 Mandásti justítiam testimónia tua: * et veritátem tuam nimis.
You have commanded justice your testimonies: and your truth exceedingly.
139 Tabéscere me fecit zelus meus: * quia oblíti sunt verba tua inimíci mei.
My zeal has made me pine away: because my enemies forgot your words.
140 Ignítum elóquium tuum veheménter: * et servus tuus diléxit illud.
Your word is exceedingly refined: and your servant has loved it.
141 Adolescéntulus sum ego et contémptus: * justificatiónes tuas non sum oblítus.
I am very young and despised; but I forget not your justifications
142 Justítia tua, justítia in ætérnum: * et lex tua véritas.
Your justice is justice for ever: and your law is the truth.
143 Tribulátio, et angústia invenérunt me: * mandáta tua meditátio mea est.
Trouble and anguish have found me: your commandments are my meditation.
144 Æquitas testimónia tua in ætérnum: * intelléctum da mihi, et vivam.
Your testimonies are justice for ever: give me understanding, and I shall live.