Fourth Sunday of Easter The Rev. Wendy Smith, PhD April 26, 2015
My Shepherd (Acts 4:5-12, Ps 23, I John 3:16-24 and John 10:11-18)
I imagine you know that the word psalm means a hymn or song of praise, but perhaps you didn’t know, that it refers to a song accompanied by a stringed instrument. Out of 150 psalms, 73 psalms, almost half, are attributed to King David, and among these, about 13 psalms specify a particular known circumstance in the life of David, when he wrote the psalm. The 23rd Psalm is one that we can attribute with confidence to David, because we know he was a shepherd, and because we know there were several occasions in his life when he walked in the shadow of death.
It is such a familiar and comforting psalm, that it is easy to overlook the details that give it such deep meaning. The first detail has to do with the sheep, which were important assets in the ancient Israelite economy–for milk, for wool, and for sacrificial offering. Sheep are easily startled and are always hungry. Although they usually follow the dominant ewe, they are sometimes distracted and wander away. Then they may be attacked by predators such as wolves and jackals. So the shepherd needs to be a strong guardian, but also a calm presence, so that the sheep do not panic and scatter when a new direction must be taken. With this background in mind, it is easy to see that the psalm tells the story of a journey, in which the shepherd guides the flock through a dangerous landscape to a safe place to graze.
But there is something else behind this experience of herding sheep which influenced the psalm: it is the memory the Jews kept alive, of wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt. They had been led by an earlier shepherd, Moses, who followed the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. When the people were hungry, God provided manna and quails; when the people were thirsty, God provided water from a rock. So the image of the Lord as the shepherd of Israel was much older than David; indeed that early experience was the foundation for the sense that God was their defender, and their rescuer.
In the first three verses of Psalm 23, David claimed a personal relationship with the Lord — he had no doubt that everything necessary would be provided. Our usual translation, “I shall not want” does not convey this feeling as strongly as the old 1928 Prayerbook translation: “therefore can I lack nothing”. The green pastures, the still waters, and the right, or safe, pathways will certainly be found. The meaning of these first three verses is, God is keeping me alive!
In verse 4, there is a significant shift. David seems to remember that despite God’s guidance along right paths, sometimes we sheep get lost and find ourselves in dangerous places — “the darkest valley” or “the valley of the shadow of death”. These words convey a feeling of confusion, of fear, and of despair . . . David was remembering a time when he didn’t know which way to turn in the darkness. He then affirmed, addressing the Lord in the second person: “you are with me, your rod” for beating off predators, “and your staff” for guiding me in the dark, “they comfort me” and “I will fear no evil”. In the midst of suffering or danger, David says, I am like a sheep who trusts completely in the protection and guidance of my Shepherd, who is God.
In verse 5, there is another significant shift, from the valley in shadow, to the household. We know this because sheep do not eat from tables — this is a domestic image, a picture of hospitality: God the shepherd, has become God the host, the head of a household who has prepared a feast, a banquet set forth for me. According to the etiquette of the ancient world, the guests should all be anointed with oil, and provided with cups that are refilled again and again. This picture says that I will receive more than I need — an abundance is waiting for me.
In the final verse, two qualities of the Shepherd: goodness and mercy — will mysteriously accompany me “all the days of my life”. This is another way of saying, God will continue to be my shepherd, but with a precise meaning. To say that goodness will follow me, is an affirmation both that God’s creation is good, and also that God has a good purpose for my life. To say that mercy will follow me, is a recognition that even with God’s guidance, I will sometimes wander away from the right pathways, and I will make mistakes, and my trust in God might even slip away. I will need mercy; I will need many invitations to return to the right pathway. In the last line, David expressed confidence that his relationship with God will last forever, and that is why we often read this psalm at memorial services.
Although the 23rd psalm is based on the herding of sheep, David’s use of metaphors is so powerful, that people throughout the ages find that it fits their experience. We have no reason to think that Jesus ever herded sheep, but he certainly knew shepherds, and was aware of sheepherding practices. Clearly this psalm was important to Jesus, as he made his way to Jerusalem, expecting to be rejected. The faith of Jesus, the trust of Jesus in his Father, was profound, and deeply impressed his disciples. The confidence he expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, that there is no need for anxiety about food or clothing, because “your heavenly father knows that you need all these things” is in close parallel to the opening verses of Psalm 23 about the green pastures and still waters. Many times Jesus said things like, “my food is to do the will of my Father” (Jn 4:24), which suggests to me that Jesus did regard the Lord as his shepherd.
Furthermore, we know from all four Gospels that Jesus expected to enter “the valley of the shadow of death”, since he predicted that he would suffer and be killed. Perhaps the image of Jesus as the lamb of God arises from these parallels. Surely, as he carried his cross through the streets of Jerusalem, he may have prayed, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me”. Jesus’ faith was so strong, that he promised the repentant thief, “today you shall be with me in paradise”. We know something of what Jesus expected paradise to be, from the many parables in which the kingdom of God is compared to a great feast, like the table in verse 5, in which God has anointed the psalmist with oil, and given him a full cup of wine.
What I am suggesting here, is that the 23rd psalm may have been especially important to Jesus, as an image or description of who his Father is– a shepherd who provides, guides, and rescues. In that shadow of death which Jesus faced, he may have relied both on Ps 22 (my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) AND on Ps 23 (I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me). If that is true, then it may also be true that what Jesus said in our Gospel reading, “I am the Good Shepherd–the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” might well be words he said after his resurrection. Having laid down his life for the sheep, he has become the Good Shepherd for you and for me. In support of this proposal, I have put on the cover of the bulletin, the earliest image of Jesus ever found, in the Roman catacombs, which show him as a young shepherd, without beard, carrying a lamb on his shoulders.
It makes sense for us, therefore, to read this psalm as the prayer of David, and also to read it as a prayer which Jesus both prayed and lived. But when you and I say, the Lord is my shepherd, we may mean both that God the Creator is my shepherd, and also that God the Son is my shepherd. When we say, “he restores my soul” we may mean both that the Father is protecting me, and also that I am with Christ in his resurrection. When we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we may be able to “see in the dark”, because we fear no evil, knowing that good has triumphed and will triumph over evil. Because God is with us, we are comforted by the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Ultimately, we are safe.
If there is anyone here, who is walking though that valley of the shadow right now, for whatever reason, I recommend that you pray this 23rd psalm in a particular way. It comes from a medieval saint, Catherine of Siena, whose feast day is April 29th. We can follow the instruction God gave to her, to imagine within your heart, a valley in the wilderness, with a pathway running through it. In this interior place, imagine yourself walking with Jesus, the Good Shepherd. All the troubles you are facing, and all the suffering you may be experiencing, are still around you, but you are not alone. Imagine how the Good Shepherd is guiding you toward green pastures, though you may not be able to see them yet. In fact, you cannot see more than a few steps ahead, but Jesus knows the right pathways, and he will lead you safely away from the edge of the cliff on the left, and around the quicksand on the right. He will give you living water along the way.
In the midst of your personal wilderness, he will bring you, now and then, to a table prepared for you. The Good Shepherd will anoint you with the Holy Spirit, and at that table, you will receive the Bread of life. The cup which he blessed, will overflow into you, and you will be strengthened to continue along your path. Remember the words of the psalm as you visualize yourself walking safely through the valley, and allow yourself to be nourished and comforted. Trust that you will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.