“Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding;
who must be fitted with bit and bridle,
or else they will not stay near you.”
The Book of Psalms is one of the great treasures of Holy Scripture. It is at the center of the common life of many worshiping communities, particularly those in monastic traditions (many Benedictine communities, for instance, read the entire Psalter in worship every week). The centrality of the Psalms is not at all surprising when you consider their extraordinary breadth. The Book of Psalms covers the entire range of human emotions, from the jubilation of Psalm 150 to the despair of Psalm 22, from the hopefulness of Psalm 121 to the lament of Psalm 51. There are, however, moments in the Psalms that are difficult to categorize. One of my good friends is fond of saying that there are times that the Book of Psalms sounds a bit like the rantings of the uncle you only see once a year. These snippets include non sequiturs like Psalm 147:10. It’s easy to imagine a middle aged man interrupting the dinnertime conversation by saying, “Hey, hey, hey! Just so you know, God is not impressed with the might of a horse,” just before the rest of the party returns to the topic at hand.
This verse from Psalm 32 that Episcopalians read last Sunday (also horse-related) seems to fall within this category. The Psalmist gives us the unsolicited advice that we should not behave like horses or mules, that we should not depend on bits or bridles. The implication, of course, is that the intelligent person, the one who is not like a mule, remains close to God without tethers and without the threat of punishment or retribution. This sentiment is somewhat expected. We are used to hearing that truly faithful people have a desire to be with God.
Notice, however, that the converse is also true. We are told not to behave like horses or mules, but this implies that God will not treat us like horses or mules. God does not fit us with bit or bridle and coerce us into staying near; rather, God invites us into the joy of a nearness that is not about being chained down, but being in a loving relationship. Unfortunately, the Church has a poor track record when it comes to embracing this aspect of God’s identity. We have been inclined to fit people with bits and bridles in order to keep them in line. We have been more interested in getting people to follow rules than in helping them experience the nearness of God’s presence. We have, in short, failed to invite people into a relationship with the one who created and redeemed them, and we are called to repent. Fortunately, Lent is an opportunity to do just that. This season is a chance to invite people into relationship rather than trying to keep them in line. I pray that you will see this season as an opportunity to draw closer to the God who refuses to fit you with bit or bridle.