It’s not a pretty picture.
When death comes for the archbishop, in the novel by Willa Cather of that name, it claims him as it has claimed the other main character. Both Latour, “the tower,” and Vaillant, “the valiant,” have their lives come to an end. So does Buck Scales, the abusive innkeeper who tried and failed to murder them in their beds.
Death Comes for the Archbishop shows that every one of us, clergy, Native American, settler, and all, has his and her own flaws as well as being beloved of God. It shows the blithe blindness of distant, powerful members of the Church, mostly French, deciding for the newly acquired U.S. territory of New Mexico what kind of church and what kind of faith practices they must have, with no awareness of, and no regard for, the people who have already been living in the territory.
This novel still resonates, it still has something to say to people who read it, almost a hundred years after its publication in 1927. As do the Psalms (which are a little older) and indeed all of Scripture. The Bible is the Living Word, the cradle that shows us the Christ, and it never will stop saying to you and me all that we might hear – until our lives here on earth have ended. Death comes for you and me as surely as it comes for the archbishop. So where is the good news in that truth?
Here in week four of seven in our Summer of Psalms, the composer of this psalm meditates on the reality that death comes for him or her, even as it comes for the ones who persecute and oppress. And the psalmist finds that reality to be very good news indeed. Despair need not apply.
Hear this, all you peoples… you of high degree and low, rich and poor together.
Psalm 49, of which we hear a portion, is a meditation on wisdom and on the limits of wealth. Having sorted out that everyone dies, that death is indeed the great leveler, the composer of this hymn finds the inevitability a promise from God, the wisdom of this information being a balm to the soul instead of a message that it’s time to panic.
Biblical wisdom literature provides instructions on how to live wisely before the Lord. The portion of the psalm we hear today, verses one through twelve, wrestles with a question that has been vexing the composer for some time.
Since death comes for both the archbishop and the innkeeper, so to speak, how can you and I reconcile that reality with the injustice that runs through all the layers of our society? However uneasily we live with it, we see that, for example, if you are Felicity Huffman you can make it easier for your child to be admitted to a desirable university. And the psalmist is one who has lived with a lifetime of seeing the systems flourish, the social structures and distribution of resources that hold the composer and others like him or her in their place.
So that it is actually a comfort, as Vanessa Lovelace says, to “come to the awareness that the wealthy eventually will die just the same as the poor…. All the wealth in the world cannot save the wealthy from the finality of death.” Dr. Lovelace is the dean at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.
It is good news indeed that in the promises of God the Creator, who measures the span of the lives of each of us, there is no ransom great enough, no powerful influence strong enough, for even the Emperor of Rome to bribe his way out of keeping his appointment with death.
To which you and I might reply: Well, duh. So why is this reality that the psalmist has arrived at such good news? Because of a Hebrew practice that Dr. Lovelace highlights. She points us to verses seven through nine: One can never redeem another, or give to God the ransom for another’s life; for the ransom of a life is so great that there would never be enough to pay it, in order to live forever and ever and never see the grave.
The word for “ransom” in these verses, in Hebrew padah, was a practice in the time and place where the composer dwelled. If a person who was found guilty of a crime had enough money, he could pay the ransom and get a reduced sentence – or, someone else could take his place and serve that sentence. We’ve seen this practice in the American civil war, when the price was said to be three hundred dollars.
“Wise or foolish, for the wealthy their final resting place will be their tombs while others benefit from their accrued riches.” This is not to scorn the wise practice of providing for our descendants. By no means, as St. Paul would say. Instead, this wisdom psalm, the one that someone composed and handed in to the choirmaster, reminds us that “the paths of glory lead but to the grave,” so that no matter what our lives have looked like, we each of us will face God as you and I truly are, the Creator who made us and loves us and sees ourselves. And that is not a thing to fear; that is a coming home, a relief, a time to set aside the social conventions we carry all our lives until it is over, and then we are home forever.
In Judasim, the tradition in which the psalmist was living, a category of personal status called gosses (“go-sais”) helps each of us when it is time to move from this world to the next one. Rabbi Richard Address, who leads the Congregation M’Kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, says that “when a person becomes gosses” is when it is time for the soul to separate from the body. And having struggled with the socioeconomic hard truth that “the very rich are different from you and me,” our composer finds the true justice, the restorative judgment of the Kingdom of God, in knowing that – despite the practice of paying a ransom to escape consequence, death comes for the archbishop. Death comes for the innkeeper. Death comes, and when it comes, it is not the Grim Reaper with hooded robe and scythe but the joyous father running to greet the wayward and lost child. Welcome home, psalmist. Welcome home, president. Welcome home.
 Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”
 Rabbi Richard F. Address, “Making Sacred Choices at the End of Life,” LifeLights series.
 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.