Commentary on 2nd Part of Psalm 48(49)

Human Wealth Does Not Save, Says John Paul II

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 27, 2004 ( Here is a translation of the address John Paul II prepared today for the general audience, which he dedicated to comment on the second part of Psalm 48(49).

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1. The Liturgy of Vespers presents to us Psalm 48(49), of a sapiential nature, of which we have just heard the second part (see verses 14-21). As in the first part (see verses 1-13), on which we already reflected, this part of the Psalm also condemns the illusion generated by the idolatry of wealth. This is one of the constant temptations of humanity: attaching oneself to money, regarding it as endowed with an invincible force; it deludes one into thinking that «death can also be bought,» removing it from oneself.

2. In reality, death breaks in with its capacity to demolish all illusions, sweeping away every obstacle, humbling all self-confidence (see verse 14) and sending rich and poor, sovereigns and subjects, the foolish and wise to the next world. Effective is the image sketched by the Psalmist when presenting death as a shepherd who leads with a firm hand the flock of corruptible creatures (see verse 15). Psalm 48(49) proposes to us, therefore, a realistic and severe meditation on death, fundamental and inescapable end of human existence.

Often we seek in every way to ignore this reality, removing it from the horizon of our thought. But this effort, in addition to being useless, is also inopportune. Reflection on death, in fact, is beneficial because it relativizes so many secondary realities which, unfortunately, we have absolutized, as is, precisely, the case of wealth, success, power. For this reason, Sirach, a wise man of the Old Testament, admonishes: «In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin» (7:36).

3. But in our Psalm, there is a decisive turn. If money does not succeed in «ransoming us» from death (see Psalm 48[49]:8-9), there is, however, one who can redeem us from that dark and tragic horizon. In fact, the Psalmist says: «But God will redeem my life, will take me from the power of Sheol» (verse 16).

Thus, a horizon of hope and immortality opens for the just man. To the question posed at the beginning of the Psalm («Why should I fear?»: verse 6), the answer is now given: «Do not fear when others become rich» (verse 17).

4. The just man, poor and humiliated in history, when he reaches the last frontier of life, is without goods, has nothing to give as «ransom» to stop death and remove himself from its cold embrace. But then the great surprise comes: God himself offers the ransom and snatches his faithful one from the hands of death, as he is the only one who can conquer death, inexorable for human creatures.

For this reason, the Psalmist invites us to «not fear» and not envy the rich man who is ever more arrogant in his glory (ibid.) because, when death comes, he will be divested of everything, he will not be able to take with him gold or silver, fame or success (see verses 18-19). The faithful one, on the contrary, will not be abandoned by the Lord, who will indicate to him «the path to life, abounding joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever» (see Psalm 15[16]:11).

5. Then we can pronounce, by way of conclusion to the sapiential meditation of Psalm 48(49), the words of Jesus who describes for us the real treasure that challenges 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).

6. Following the line of the words of Christ, St. Ambrose in his Commentary on Psalm 48(49) confirms in a clear and firm way the inconsistency of riches: «They are all spent things and they go faster than they came. A treasure of this sort is but a dream. You wake up and it has already disappeared, because the man who is able to sleep off the drunkenness of this world and appropriate to himself the sobriety of the virtues, scorns all these things and gives no value at all to money» («Commento a Dodici Salmi» [Commentary on Twelve Psalms], No. 23: Saemo, VIII, Milan-Rome, 1980, p. 275).

7. Therefore, the bishop of Milan encourages us not to allow ourselves to be attracted by riches and human glory: «Be not afraid when one becomes rich, when the glory of his house increases! Know how to look profoundly with attention, and it will seem empty to you if it does not have a crumb of the fullness of faith.» In fact, before the coming of Christ, man was ruined and empty: «The ruinous fall of the ancient Adam emptied us, but the grace of Christ has filled us. He emptied himself to fill us and to make the fullness of virtue dwell in man’s flesh.»

St. Ambrose concludes by saying that precisely for this reason, we can now exclaim with St. John: «From his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace» (John 1:16) (ibid.).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, a papal aide read the following summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today’s catechesis is a reflection on the second part of Psalm 48. In the Psalm, we hear a strong condemnation of those who idolize riches and turn their backs on God.

One of humanity’s constant temptations is to attach itself to money, with the false hope that it can even stave off death.

In today’s world, there is at times an attempt to ignore our own mortality. Thus it is necessary to recall that a serious and faith-filled meditation on man’s final destiny will produce great benefits. God will never abandon the just man, not even at the hour of death. Indeed, God opens wide to his faithful ones a horizon of hope and immortality.

[The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s audience. I greet particularly the groups from England, Ireland, Denmark, Greece and the United States of America. Wishing you a pleasant time in the Eternal City, I cordially invoke upon you joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ. Have a happy stay in Rome!

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