The Lord is my portion; I promise to keep thy words.

Consider how marvelous it is that God has given his Word to us; His Word which reveals not only the truth about our lives, our worth, our purpose, but also is the very truth of God Himself. This is no mere “fact,” not just some verifiable dictum. His Word is the foundation of all verifiability: nothing is true without Him. Nothing exists except through the Word.

Additionally, the revelation of God through the gift of His Word is not an esoteric or hidden revelation. It is not given in secret and cryptic messages only to a few. Rather, it is proclaimed loudly in every corner of the earth. It is the wisdom with which the foolish confound the proud. It is infinitely mysterious, but also endlessly accessible, because it is given to us.

But the very fact that the knowledge of the Word of God and the Gospel of His Church has been made available to so many makes it possible for us to forget how wonderful it is. We can be like the Israelites in the desert, who witnessed the descent of God in fire and smoke on Mount Sinai to give them the Law, but who almost immediately forgot the significance of such a gift and betrayed God. We can also at times be like the Pharisees at the time of Jesus, many of whom understood the law to be a material legal obligation. They forgot that it was a covenantal relationship with God through which He was actually giving Himself.

How are we to remember or to realize the significance of the possession of God’s Word? We do, in fact, have God’s Word: He is our living Lord who gives Himself to us each day. He does not only make Himself available for us but really gives Himself to us. Every way that we can receive God’s Word, therefore, must be taken up with the full significance of the Incarnation. This includes scripture and the liturgy, along with the full range of the Church’s dogmatic teaching.

Psalm 119 reflects on the significance of the Word. The psalmist turns back and forth from supplication to praise to thanksgiving using many synonyms for God’s Word, including “law,” “testimonies,” “commandments,” “statutes,” “ordinances,” “word of truth,” “precepts,” etc. All joy and life and wisdom comes from carefully keeping, knowing, understanding, and meditating on these “precepts.”

One verse in particular stands out, which is the verse I quoted above: v. 57 says, “The Lord is my portion; I promise to keep thy words.” Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in A School of Prayer that this verse could also be translated “My portion, Lord, as I have said, is to preserve your words” (Ignatius Press 2013, p. 106). The word “portion,” echoed in other psalms, recalls the division of the land of Canaan among the tribes of Israel in Num 18:12. In this scene, each tribe receives a “portion” of land except the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. Their portion is the Lord alone.

For the Levites, obeying the command of God meant having no portion besides Him—that is, no land or household. But we too can and ought to pray in the words of the psalm, “The Lord is my portion.” How, then, should we understand this as having meaning for the children of the Church?

The significance for priests is clear, since it parallels the original meaning of “portion” in the Torah for the Levitical priesthood. Israelite priests gave up the prospect of land for the sake of God’s Word, whereas Roman priests give up the prospect of a family by living celibate lives. 

It is true that not everyone is called to a life of celibacy. But in a certain way, celibacy as the “portion” of a priest who receives the Word of God reveals the attitude of total trust and devotion that all believers ought to have who also receive the Word of God. Insofar as everyone can say “The Lord is my portion,” all are called to separate themselves from the world and unite themselves to Christ. “The Lord is my portion”: therefore let me have no portion of this world. 

No act of reverencing God’s law can be complete if we do not also receive Jesus into our hearts as the Incarnate Word. What this means becomes clearer when we consider that as members of the body of Christ we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet 2:9). According to the priestly character of our participation in Him, this reception must take the form of a renunciation of the world. Because the Lord offers Himself to us as our “portion,” we should not take any portion or treasure besides Him. Priests and religious live this out in the most literal way by promising to remain celibate, but their vocations are also eschatological signs of our common vocation of holiness. They show us how radical the decision of faith is through which divine truth penetrates us. We are truly set apart, a chosen people, a royal priesthood.

Therefore, the decision to have no treasure but Jesus must include the decision to have no law but His law. If He is our treasure, His decrees and ordinances must be our treasures too. In this way, it becomes clear that the truest life of love, a life totally united to the body of Christ, is fundamentally characterized by an obedience to the moral law. No decision about one’s life could be more fulfilling or more practical. It is practical because it guides one’s behavior away from evil and toward what is good in very specific ways. It is fulfilling because through this obedience to the law, we bind ourselves to the gift of God, which is Christ Himself, the Incarnate Word. So let us pray with the psalmist:

The Lord is my portion; I promise to keep thy words.