More than 20,000 people attended Pope John Paul II's general audience on Oct. 27 in St. Peter's Square. The Holy Father offered his reflections on the second part of Psalm 49. He had spoken about the first part of the psalm at his general audience during the previous week as part of his ongoing series of teachings on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours.
Psalm 49, Pope John Paul II noted, strongly condemns those who idolize riches and turn their backs on God and offer us at the same time “a very hard yet realistic” meditation on death. “Often we try to ignore this reality in any possible way by dismissing it from our thoughts,” the Holy Father said. “But any such effort, besides being useless, is also inopportune. Indeed, any reflection on death is beneficial because it renders many secondary realities — which, unfortunately, we have made into absolutes — relative, which is precisely the case as regards wealth, success, and power.”
Pope John Paul II pointed out a turning point in the psalm: “If money will never successfully ‘ransom’ us from death, there is, nonetheless, one person who can redeem us from this dark and tragic prospect.” God has come to save mankind. “Thus, a horizon of hope and immortality opens up for the just man,” the Holy Father said.
Pope John Paul II noted that the psalmist invites us not to fear or envy the rich man who basks in his wealth and glory because he will be stripped on everything in death. The Lord will not abandon the faithful man, he said, but will show him the path to abundant life.
The general audience opened with a choral rendition of the second half of Psalm 49.
As the Liturgy of Hours' evening prayer progressively unfolds, we once again encounter Psalm 49, a wisdom psalm, whose second part we just heard (see verses 14–21). Just like the first part (see verses 1–13), on which we already reflected, this section of the psalm also condemns the illusion that results from idolizing wealth. Such an attachment to money, seeing it as endowed with an invincible power, is a constant temptation for mankind that deceives us into thinking that “even death can be bought” and driven away.
In reality, death intervenes with its capacity to demolish every illusion, sweeping away every obstacle from its path, humbling all of our self-confidence (see verse 14), and sending the rich and poor, rulers and their subjects, the foolish and the wise towards the world to come.
The image that the psalmist depicts of death as a shepherd who herds his flock of corruptible creatures with a firm hand is highly effective (see verse 15). Psalm 49 offers us, therefore, a very harsh yet realistic meditation on death — the fundamental end of all human life that cannot be avoided.
Death Is Inevitable
Often we try to ignore this reality in any possible way by dismissing it from our thoughts. But such an effort, besides being useless, is also inopportune. Indeed, any reflection on death is beneficial because it renders many secondary realities — which, unfortunately, we have made into absolutes — relative, which is precisely the case as regards wealth, success and power. For this reason, Sirach, an Old Testament sage, warns us: “In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin” (Sirach 7:36).
But there is a decisive turning point in the psalm. If money will never successfully “ransom” us from death (see Psalm 49:8-9), there is, nonetheless, one person who can redeem us from this dark and tragic prospect. Indeed, as the psalmist says, “But God will redeem my life, will take me from the power of Sheol” (see verse 16).
Thus, a horizon of hope and immortality opens up for the just man. The question posed at the beginning of the psalm, “Why should I fear?” (see verse 6), now has an answer: “Do not fear when others become rich” (see verse 17).
God Has Saved Us
When the just man, who has been poor and humiliated throughout history, reaches the last frontier of his life, he has no possessions and has nothing to pay as a “ransom” in order to put an end to death and extricate himself from its cold embrace. At this point, however, there is a big surprise: God himself pays the ransom and snatches his faithful one from death's clutches because he is the only one who can conquer death, which is inevitable for his human creatures.
For this reason, the psalmist invites us to neither “fear” nor envy the rich man as he grows increasingly arrogant in his glory (see verse 17) because once he dies he will be stripped of everything he has, unable to take his gold, silver, fame or success with him (see verses 18–19). On the other hand, the Lord will not abandon the faithful man and will show him “the path to life, abounding joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever” (see Psalm 16:11).
The Enduring Treasure
As a conclusion to our meditation, which offers some wisdom on Psalm 49, we might offer Jesus' words, which describe the real treasure that defies death: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:19–21).
Based on Christ's words, St. Ambrose, in his Commentary on Psalm 49, confirms the emptiness of riches in a way that is clear and unwavering: “They are entirely fleeting and they are spent faster than they came in. A treasure of this sort is but a dream. You wake up and it has already vanished, because the man who is able to sleep off the drunkenness of this world and is able to appropriate for himself the simplicity of virtue scorns all these things and gives no value at all to money” (Commento a Dodici Salmi, No. 23: Saemo, VIII, Milan-Rome, 1980, p. 275).
Therefore, the bishop of Milan encourages us not to allow ourselves to be unwittingly attracted by riches and by human glory: “Don't be afraid, even when you feel that the glory of some powerful family has increased! Know how to look deeply and attentively, and it will seem empty to you if it does not contain a morsel of the fullness of faith.” In fact, before the coming of Christ, man was totally ruined and empty: “The ruinous fall of the old Adam left us empty, but Christ's grace has filled us. He emptied himself to fill us so that the fullness of virtue would dwell in man's flesh.” For precisely this reason, St. Ambrose concludes, we can now exclaim along with St. John: “From his fullness have we all received, grace in place of grace” (John 1:16) (ibid.).