Psalm 23: The gentleness of God – 6/24/12

Chances are, if you have only a few scriptures memorized, that Psalm 23 is one of them.  If you don’t have the whole thing memorized, then there’s a good chance you have fragments of this Psalm dancing around somewhere in your synapses.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me.”  “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”  If you do not have a history of any kind with this Psalm, then welcome to one of the most beloved passages in all of scripture.  The power of Psalm 23 persists despite the distance that so many of us today have from any kind of pastoral/shepherding culture where these images originate.  It still speaks.  And, interestingly, despite newer translations of the Bible that seek to keep pace with the changing English language, we tend to hold on to the phrases and wording of the King James Version of this Psalm – The Lord’s prayer being one of the few other examples I can think of where this is also the case.

It is a Psalm of comfort and assurance of God’s protective, gentle presence, in the midst of the most trying circumstances of life, or even death.

I remember a specific conversation in a seminary class when we were talking about pastoral care, and I wonder what you think about this advice.  The counsel of the professor to us pastors-in-the-making who would someday be making hospital and home visits, was that you don’t read Psalm 23 to someone who is undergoing a serious, but nonfatal, health problem of whatever kind, because they will associate it with dying.  This would be a very poor practice of pastoral care, if, rather than drawing attention toward the comfort of God, one comes off as reading a person their last rites!  Part of this association, I’m sure, is that this is such a common text at funerals.  I’m actually kind of curious about this, and, it may be hard to give a response right off, but I want to try and take a straw poll here to see what your thoughts are on this.  So, imagine that you are quite sick, or seriously injured, no terminal condition or anything like that, but lying in a hospital bed facing a slow recovery.  Are you there?!  The pastor or chaplain comes in and, after some conversation, says he would like to read a Psalm to you, and reads from Psalm 23, with those opening words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.”  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”  And those closing words: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”  So, ponder that scenario, and then gauge your emotional response.

How many, in that situation, would identify the Psalm with death and dying? (About 40% of the hands went up on Sunday).

I need to remember who raised their hands in order to not make this mistake with them in the future!

I want to do a couple things with this Psalm.  Since this is the first Sunday when we have our new video projector installed, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try it out.  So first, I want to show a few images of early Christian art depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd.  And second, I’d like to walk through the Psalm, line by line, and make some observations about what we find in the text.

This is an early piece of Christian artwork, found in the catacombs of Rome, depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd.

It comes from the second half of the 3rd century, between 250 and 300 CE.  And we’ve got sheep at his feet, one around his neck, and he is feeding them grain.  And then right above each sheep is an olive tree.  And in each olive tree is a dove.  Beautiful image of Christ as the Good Shepherd.

The shepherd image was used throughout the ancient near east for the gods and kings, and is used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  The first reference to God as shepherd occurs in Genesis 48:15 when Jacob blesses his son Joseph and Joseph’s sons and says: “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day…(bless you).”  Isaiah 40:11 speaks tenderly to the exiles returning from Babylon assuring the people of God’s shepherding presence: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”  God is the shepherd of the people of Israel, but more often the term is used to refer to the human leaders of the community.  Moses and Aaron shepherd the people of Israel in the desert.  Samuel refers to Saul, the first king, as the shepherd of the people (2 Sam. 5:2).  The prophet Jeremiah refers to himself as a shepherd of the people (Jeremiah 17:16).  In other places, the biblical writer laments that the people are like sheep without a shepherd.  Ezekiel 34 gives a biting critique of the leaders of Israel.  It says:

“The word of the LORD came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them– to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them…For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered.”

Not all shepherds are good shepherd.

For the early Christians, Jesus became the embodiment of what it meant to be a good shepherd.  In John 10, Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd.”  And, in the same passage, in an inclusive sweep that has been understood as including not only the people of Israel, but also all of humanity, Jesus also says: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

During the first centuries of the Christian movement, up until the fourth century when the church became the official religion of the empire, Christ was often depicted as the good shepherd, this being the most common image of Christ in the catacombs of Rome.  Not surprisingly, things begin to shift when the church became so closely affiliated with political power.

So, we have this first image, then, this marble piece shows up about 300 CE.

It’s about 3 ft high and is another depiction of Christ the good shepherd.

And then this is from sometime in the 300’s, which looks a lot like the first image, except we’re missing the sheep on the shoulders.  Not sure where it went. I believe this is an etching on stone, and it is hanging in a museum in Rome.  These are all in chronological order.

And then things start to shift.  And the good shepherd starts to look more and more like the emperor, with the halo appearing and the more magisterial pose.

This is a mosaic in a mausoleum in Ravenna, Italy, about 44o CE, and soon after Christianity goes from being a persecuted religion to being a persecuting religion and we can imagine those words of Ezekiel again having pertinence about the shepherds.

We’ll keep that earliest image up on the hunch that that Christ is a better shepherd than the imperial Christ, and take a look at Psalm 23.  You’re welcome to turn there in your Bibles.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Anytime we see “The Lord” in the Old Testament, it’s valuable to remember that this is an attempt to translate the untranslatable Hebrew name for the Divine, perhaps pronounced Yahweh.  It’s the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush, a word closely associated with the verb “to be.”  Being, Reality, Is-ness, That which eternally Is – this is the name, or non-name for God, who cannot be captured with language and is not an object in the universe, but an ever present subject.

The Psalm actually begins with simple, barebones statements.  In Hebrew the simplicity is more clear, with each of these opening lines composed of just two words: Yahweh Ro-i, Lo Ecksar.  We just need a lot more words to get at the idea:

“That Which Eternally Is is my shepherd – that’s the first two words, Yahweh Ro-i.  “I shall not want.  Or, more literally, I lack nothing.  Those are the next two words.

After the brief affirmation of the divine shepherd, we find ourselves squarely in the place of a sheep.  We lack nothing because: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul, my vitality.  He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”

In a desert culture, green pastures and still waters are not exactly plentiful.  It is assumed that the terrain is difficult, even barren, and the presence of these places of vitality and life are great gifts.  This is a station along the way where we can rest and be restored.

The Hebrew scriptures are very communally minded, and we typically encounter statements about God’s relationship with the people collectively, but this Psalm is stated in the first person, singular.  The Lord is my shepherd.  I lack nothing.  Makes me lie down.  Leads me, restores my vitality.  It is deeply personal.  But lest we get too caught up in the individual nature of this, and lest we forget the glory of that name of The One Who Eternally Is, we are reminded that all of this is “for his name’s sake.”  Our lives are lived in such a way that they point beyond themselves, to the Source from which we come.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.”

When one has a sense of being lovingly, tenderly, shepherded, one can live nested within a transformative reality captured in that phrase: “I fear no evil.”  Fear has a profound impact on the human psyche.  It colors how we see our entire environment.  It shows up in a part of the brain that we share with other animals and triggers that fight or flight mechanism based in our basic survival instincts.  When we live in fear, our primary focus is on survival and our primary lense for viewing others is that they are a threat to that survival.

The Psalm does not deny that there is danger.  Does not deny enemies, threats, or the possibility of death.  The sheep walks through the valley of the shadow of death, but does so without fear, because there is a sense of an abiding presence that gives comfort.  The shepherd offers the possibility of walking through the dark valley, uncertain of where it leads, because the shepherd is also there, in the valley.  The human spirit can face just about anything, but it can’t face it alone.  We need to be accompanied in our deepest agonies; and when a family member, a friend, is that presence for us, when you are that presence for another person, you are the very face of God, and the universe reveals an edge of gentleness, a space of comfort just big enough for us to dwell, and we fear no evil, for you are with me.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

The metaphor has shifted.  God is no longer pictured as a shepherd, but as a gracious host – in the tent preparing a feast for us, issuing that expression of desert hospitality in pouring oil over our dusty head as we enter, pouring a cup of sweet wine so abundant that it overflows and runs down in the sand.  No matter, there’s plenty more where that came from.  The enemies are still there.  Are they in the tent or lurking outside?  Are they also being served?  Are they in the process of becoming our friends because we are sitting down at a meal together?  Has our lack of fear enabled us to greet our enemies as guests?  Christ the Good Shepherd becomes Christ of the Eucharist Table, inviting friends and enemies alike to take, and eat, feast, drink your fill, all of you.  If we are sick, or injured, then even the sickness or injury or disability, which we initially perceive as our enemy, can become a friend, as we sit with it, around the table.

“Sure goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

I think one of the reasons we associate this Psalm with death is that we have read it in such a way that we’re dead by the end of it.  “The house of the Lord” is not the Jerusalem temple, but heaven, and “forever” is a spiritual eternity.  We start off in green pastures having our life and body restored with grass and water, but we end up dead, in heaven forever.  It is true, we do end up dead, and there is comfort in the thought that the Presence of The One Who Eternally Is does not leave us after physical death, but the Psalmist sees this as a far off reality.  The NRSV gets closer to the right idea: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.  The Psalmist looks forward to a rich life of awe and amazement in God’s house.

The God metaphor has shifted from Shepherd to Host, and there is one more shift that the Psalmist leaves us with.  We begin with being led, the Shepherd in front of us.  And we end with being followed – the better translation actually being pursued – actively chased.  “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.”  It is now we who are out in front, going wherever we go, and if we were to look over our shoulder, we would find that we are being actively chased.  Not by enemies this time, but by goodness, by mercy.  They will not let you out of their sight.  They pursue you.  They sniff out your tracks and come after you.  And, one day, when you are least awares, as the good shepherd looks on, they will catch up to you, do a sneak attack, overtake and defeat you, and you will be their captive.  And then you will truly begin to live.