Pope John Paul II met with 5,000 pilgrims during his general audience Feb. 4, offering his reflections on Psalm 15 as he continued his teachings on the psalms and canticles from the Liturgy of the Hours’ evening prayer.
Unlike some religions that require first and foremost an external ritual purification in order to be admitted into the presence of the divinity, the Holy Father noted that Christians need a purification of conscience “so that a love of justice and of our neighbor will inspire our choices.”
Psalm 15 presents 11 qualities that “constitute a perfect synthesis of the basic moral commitments that are present in the biblical law,” the Pope said. These qualities, he added, “could serve as the basis of a personal examination of conscience.” The psalm makes it clear that there can be no separation of faith from daily life, of prayer from work or of worship from social justice, the Holy Father said. He pointed out that the prophet Amos, like many other prophets, vehemently denounced any worship that is detached from daily life.
John Paul noted that Jesus also cherished the precepts found in Psalm 15. “If you bring your gift to the altar,” Jesus said, “and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother …” Quoting St. Hilary of Poitiers, the Holy Father said we should all make an effort to assure that this short, simple psalm is “rooted within our most intimate being, written on our heart and recorded in our memory.”
Biblical scholars often classify Psalm 15, which has been offered to us for our reflection, as part of an “entrance liturgy.” It calls to mind a sort of procession of the faithful who congregate at the doors of the Temple of Zion for worship — which occurs in some other texts in the Book of Psalms (see, for example, Psalms 24, 26 and 95). In something akin to a dialogue between the faithful and Levites, the conditions are outlined that are indispensable for being allowed to partake of this liturgical celebration and, therefore, of intimacy with God.
On the one hand, the question is raised: “Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy mountain?” (Psalm 15:1). On the other hand, the qualities that are required to cross the threshold that leads to the “tent” — the Temple on the “holy mountain” of Zion — are listed. Eleven qualities enumerated, and they constitute a perfect synthesis of the basic moral commitments that are present in the biblical law (see verses 2-5).
Purity of Conscience
At times the facades of Egyptian and Babylonian temples were engraved with the conditions that were required to enter the sacred chamber . However, it is worth noting that they were significantly different from the conditions this psalm proposes. In many religious cultures, an external ritual purification that entailed ritual washings, gestures and special clothing was required above anything else in order to be admitted to the presence of the divinity.
Psalm 15 instead calls for the purification of our conscience, so that a love of justice and of our neighbor will inspire our choices. Thus we can feel in these verses the vibrant spirit of the prophets, who repeatedly invite us to combine faith with life, prayer with life's commitments and worship with social justice (see Isaiah 1:10-20, 33:14-16; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Jeremiah 6:20).
Let us listen, for example, to the prophet Amos as he vehemently denounces in God's name any worship that is detached from daily life: “I hate, I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities; your cereal offerings I will not accept nor consider your stall-fed peace offerings … then let justice surge like water and goodness like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:21-22, 24).
Examination of Conscience
We now come to the 11 commitments the psalmist lists, which could serve as the basis of a personal examination of conscience every time we prepare to confess our sins in order to partake of communion with the Lord in our liturgical celebration.
The first three commitments are of a general nature and express an ethical choice: following the path of moral integrity, practicing justice and, lastly, perfect sincerity of speech (see Psalm 15:2).
Three duties follow that we can describe as relating to our neighbor: eliminating slander from our speech, avoiding any action that can harm our brother and refraining from insulting those who live near us in daily life (see verse 3). Then the demand is made that we take a clear position in the social realm by despising the wicked and honoring those who fear God.
Finally, three final precepts are listed for our examination of conscience: to be faithful to our word and to our oaths, even in those cases where the consequences will be detrimental to us; not to practice usury — a plague that is a disgraceful reality even in our days that can place a stronghold on the lives of many people; and finally to avoid all corruption in public life, another commitment that we could also rigorously practice in our time (see verse 5).
A Moral Decision
Following this path of a genuine moral choice means being ready to encounter the Lord. Even Jesus proposed an essential “entrance liturgy” in his Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
Whoever acts in the way that the psalmist indicates — this prayer concludes — “shall never be shaken” (Psalm 15:5). In his Tractatus super Psalmos, St. Hilary of Poitiers, a fourth-century Father and Doctor of the Church, comments on this ending with the following words, which associate it with the initial image of the tent of the Temple of Zion: “Acting according to these precepts, we dwell in the tent and we rest on the hill. Therefore, remain firm in guarding these precepts and carrying out the commandments. This psalm must be rooted within our most intimate being, written on our heart and recorded in our memory; night and day we should ponder the treasure that its rich brevity offers. Thus, having acquired this richness on our path to eternity and dwelling in the Church, we will at last be able to rest in the glory of the body of Christ” (PL 9, 308).