For a sophisticated and sincere Christian who loved the Hebrew scriptures as much as Simon Parker did, the obvious place to find the gospel for his life is in the New Testament use of the Hebrew Bible. Contrary to what you might expect, the most cited text in the New Testament is not from the prophets, or from Genesis 1, or from the passages about Noah, Abraham, Moses, or David, all of which do figure prominently. It is the first line of the 110th Psalm: “The Lord says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.’” In the Hebrew Bible that is likely a coronation hymn and the line means something like: God says to the new king, take your place under divine protection while I establish your reign in power. But the Christians took the passage to refer to the Messiah: God says to the Messiah, Jesus, reign at my side till the battle against evil, especially death, has been won. Matthew, Mark, and Luke cite Jesus quoting the passage to prove that the Messiah cannot only be a son of David. The assumption ascribed to the Pharisee’s with whom Jesus was speaking was that David himself wrote the hymn to say that God says to one of David’s sons who will be the Messiah, sit at my right hand, etc., and Jesus said that David would never have referred to his own son as “my lord.” Peter cited the passage in his first sermon recorded in Acts to prove that God had made Jesus both Lord and Messiah. The author of Ephesians uses the passage to describe Jesus’ resurrection to God’s right hand in heaven where he has dominion over all things. The author of Hebrews uses the passage to prove that Jesus is higher than angels. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, cited the passage to refer to the cosmic drama within which Jesus would conquer the forces of evil, even death, and hand the world back to God redeemed. In all these and other usages, the line from Psalm 110 stands for the victory of God as Christians understood that.
In our grief about Simon’s sudden, untimely, and unfair death, we look for signs of victory. Taking Professor Parker’s hermeneutic practice as a clue, we know to distinguish carefully between the historical meaning of a text in its original context and the uses made of the text later, and again between these and the spiritual meaning we might derive from the text in our own usage. Of course that 110th Psalm was not written about Jesus, and its author was not even David! Nevertheless, the Psalms took on new and important meanings for the Jewish religion when later they came to be regarded as David’s writings. Moreover, when the first century Christians referred the passage to Jesus, they were constructing a new meaning at the very heart of the nascent Christian gospel.
St. Paul, for instance, in the 1 Corinthians passage citing Psalm 110, was addressing questions people had about resurrection. He made two points. First, in the cosmic geography commonly accepted in his time, the plane of Earth has physical bodies with various properties appropriate to our plane, including the fact that our bodies are mortal. Above the plane of Earth is a stack of heavenly planes, each with its own set of properties. For instance, Aristotle said that below the orbit of the moon, bodies naturally travel in straight lines, whereas from the moon’s orbit and above, bodies naturally travel in circular motion; above the orbit of the sun, bodies naturally spin as well as circle. Paul said that in resurrection we shall be moved from a plane of mortality to a heavenly realm higher up where our bodies will take on the properties of celestial immortality. Also it was assumed that in that heavenly plane we will be able to associate with Jesus and God the Father, and with people who did not live in our own time, something impossible for the natural properties of the Earthly plane, however natural for heaven. These observations of Paul addressed the “what’s it like” question about resurrection.
Paul’s other main point was that, when we are enthralled by the forces of evil in our age, the death characteristic of the Earthly plane is the last word. But God in Christ Jesus has broken the power of these forces and in the course of history will eventually wholly subdue them so that the way to heavenly immortal resurrection will be open to us. Paul viewed this as a cosmic battle in which Jesus had won the way to heaven for himself, the “first fruits,” and lined things up for us, giving us freedom from the bondage of death. These observations addressed the question of the meaning of resurrection, and Paul’s moral was that resurrection is more about God than about us. Paul was against what we now call “spiritual materialists” who promise a heavenly reward for doing something. Rather, resurrection is a gift from God that we receive because God has won victory over the forces of evil that would keep us in the thrall of death. When we wake up to this fact in faith, we participate in this cosmic victory.
Now Simon would be the first to point out that these reflections of Paul are set in the cultural context of the first century. We no longer believe that, going up, one passes through a stack of heavens with different natural properties. Moreover, we are suspicious of those who reduce cosmic history to a moral saga, especially one that fosters a vision of the world as divided between the righteous and the unrighteous, with an invitation to go to war against those you think are unrighteous. Paul, of course, never pushed the imagery of cosmic warfare that far, claiming to the contrary that everyone is a sinner and that governments in general are divine agents.
Yet to find our own signs of victory, we need to ask how these first century texts deliver the gospel to us in our own historical situation, faced as we are with Simon Parker’s death as a faithful disciple of Christ. The other side of Simon’s hermeneutic, after the historical analysis, was to see through the texts as symbols opening onto the divine. What a lively literary imagination he had for seeing the point where others got stuck on the broken symbols!
The first thing we see through these symbols is that Simon, with the rest of us, now is fully present with the eternal God who created and sustained him all his days. Death in time cannot change the eternal God who eternally sustains Simon together with all those with whom he has been connected. Sitting together with God and Jesus, with footstools, is one good image of this, though I rather suspect Simon would prefer to imagine making music together. For sure, God is a bass and Jesus a helden-tenor; now they have an accompanist.
The second thing we see through these symbols is that, because God our creator who holds all times together is eternal, Simon is eternally alive in God with all the moments of his life as present experience, his childhood and youth together with his mature life. Moreover, within the divine life he is connected to all those with whom he was connected at any time in his life. We who are limited to merely temporal experience live one day at a time, and the past seems lost while the future is not yet. The veil of temporality gives us a merely abstract vision of life within God’s eternity. Simon gets eternal life face to face.
The third thing we see is that the enemy has been put down, the evil, the selfishness, that makes us believe that the veil of temporality is the whole truth, and that death is the last word. Jesus revealed and taught a way of love that overcomes both selfishness between people and resentment of God so that we can accept ourselves as eternally together in the divine economy. Simon was fully committed to this way of love of neighbors and God, and was free of sin’s bondage. As Jesus’ disciple, nothing can separate him from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
The fourth thing we see is that God’s victory over the forces within creation that would blind us to the light of salvation embraces us as well as Simon. We all miss him deeply, in many different ways. For some, he was like a part of us, and that grief is very deep indeed. His wife, Sonia, now suddenly and unexpectedly, needs to plan a life without him: how can that be borne? It can be borne because God embraces all of us together with the grace that gives each of us a place in the divine economy. Within the veil of temporality, our community of love and support expresses that divine economy in a real, if abstract, way. The divine love by which the enemies of life are put down is in Sonia and in every one of us, as well as Simon. This is what is meant by the communion of saints. It is not something we have earned. This grace is something that we enjoy from God, which we know as we imagine sitting around with our feet propped up on the bondage of evil. Our own lives yet to come will have plenty of pains, evils, and occasions of selfishness; but those things do not define us. Because Jesus is on that throne, his feet on the enemies, we know his way is not susceptible to anything that might separate us from the divine glory, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.” “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Despite our shock and grief, we can be confident that in eternal life, Simon Parker shares the footstool of Jesus, and we can hope to join that party some day.
Simon Parker was a much–beloved professor of Hebrew Bible at the Boston University School of Theology. ↩