The Bible presents the faithful reader with one hundred and fifty psalms, expressions of praise, joy, thanksgiving, petition and, of course, penitence. Sometime in the sixth century a Biblical commentator named Cassiodorus singled out seven psalms that he entitled “The Seven Penitential Psalms,” sometimes also called “Psalms of Confession.” These seven penitential psalms are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. These psalms touchingly express heartfelt sorrow for sin. Four were favored as penitential psalms by St. Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century. The fifty-first Psalm, perhaps the best known and most emblematic of the seven, was recited at the close of daily morning services in the primitive Church. This psalm is especially attributed to King David as his declaration of sorrow and repentance after Nathan the prophet accused David of adultery with Bathsheba.
David’s classic lament prays especially for the elimination of all personal harm that sin has caused and expresses hope for a renewed moral life in the future. Sorrow for sin in the past and a firm purpose of amendment leading to a more productive future were and still are the essence of true penitence. The New American Bible sections this psalm into three parts. The first part (Ps 51:3–10) asks deliverance from all sins committed in the past but also pleads for release from the continuing ill effects of sin that might hinder the believer’s personal growth into spiritual maturity. “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me. For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always: Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, that you may be justified in your sentence, vindicated when you condemn. Indeed, in guilt was I born, and in sin my mother conceived me; behold, you are pleased with sincerity of heart, and in my inmost being you teach me wisdom. Cleanse me of sin with hyssop, that I may be purified; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear the sounds of joy and gladness; the bones you have crushed shall rejoice.”
The second part (Ps 51:11–19) again seeks something more intense than mere forgiveness; it asks for a renewed sense of continuing conversion through closeness with God’s spirit. This intimacy with God’s spirit will allow the sinner to share his joy with others who need conversion. Such productive spiritual renewal will certainly outrank any routine ritual sacrifice. “Turn away your face from my sins, and blot out all my guilt. A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me. Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me. Give me back the joy of your salvation and a willing spirit sustain in me. I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners shall return to you. Free me from blood guilt, O Lord, my saving God; then my tongue shall revel in your justice. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. For you are not pleased with sacrifices; should I offer a holocaust, you would not accept it. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.”
The last two verses (Ps.51:20-21), possibly added by Temple priests of a later generation who wanted to remind the faithful Jew of the importance of regular Temple worship, express the hope that God’s good will toward those who are cleansed and contrite will prompt God to look favorably not only on personal prayers of contrition but also on acts of worship offered in the Jerusalem Temple. “Be bountiful, O Lord, to Sion in your kindness by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem; then shall you be pleased with due sacrifices, burnt offerings and holocausts; then shall they offer up bullocks on your altar. Amen.”
Humility is essential to all prayer. “The one who humbles himself will be exalted,” Jesus concludes in this coming Sunday’s Gospel. And as Sirach writes in Sunday’s first reading, “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.” Again, what King David expressed profoundly in twenty-one verses, the contrite publican in this Sunday’s parable expresses with equal profundity in one sentence: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus’ words similarly expose the vanity of the Pharisee: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” There is no sorrow for the past in these words; there is no firm purpose of amendment either. This is no act of contrition. This smug believer frustrates the very purpose of a penitential prayer which is to acknowledge both God’s majesty and mankind’s meanness and to hope for a more fruitful future. True penitential prayer regrets the past, embraces the present and hopes for the future.