When’s the last time you heard the 23rd Psalm?

Psalm 23 and John 10
April 25, 2010
Steve Hammond

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” But what if God not only prepared a table for us in the presence of our enemies, but invited them to supper?

Most of us, I think, if we know this Psalm at all know it from funerals, for good reason; it is so very comforting. God leads us to green pastures and still waters. God restores our souls. God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. God’s goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives. And we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. This Psalm tells us we can trust God when the going gets tough and we are not tough enough to get going.

But there are other layers to this Psalm for us to think about. Did you know, for example, that in other places in this world this Psalm is not read at funerals, but at political protests?

It turns out that in places like Africa and Asia, the political leaders, some of them quite corrupt and despotic, often describe themselves as shepherds who care for their flock. But the response from Christians in those places is “No, you are not our shepherd. God is. It says so right in Psalm 23.” That citing of Psalm 23 is a direct challenge to the rulers who oppress and swindle their people. The people aren’t looking to those so called shepherds for help, but to God. And it’s God, not those rulers, who has earned their allegiance. The 23rd Psalm, it turns out, like so many other scriptures is a revolutionary text.

And that line ‘God leads us in paths of righteousness for God’s name’s sake’ is translated differently in many other places. And they do a better job of helping us understand what is behind that verse when they translate it that God lead us in ‘paths of justice.’

In this Psalm people see that when we fight for justice in this world we are lifting up God’s name. We tread the paths of justice and honor who God is. It’s a Psalm of trust and action.

Jesus was not reluctant to call himself a shepherd, even the Good Shepherd. It was one of the things that got him in trouble. The accusation was he was claiming to be God.

We look back at all of this debate that has gone on in the history of the Church about what the exact nature of Jesus is. Is he divine? Is he human? Or is he, as the Nicene Creed puts it, very God and very man?

Those are our issues, but I don’t think they were issues Jesus had. “What you see in me,” he was saying, “is who God is.” He was saying nothing more, nor nothing less than that, which is a pretty bold statement all in itself without the arguments over the ontological nature of Jesus. I’m not arguing whether Jesus is God or not. I’m just suggesting Jesus wasn’t either. What I am arguing is that Jesus was saying what you see me doing is what God does.

What is it that God does? The scriptures that Jesus hearers were working with are not of one voice, they are ‘texts in travail,’ as the theologian René Girard put it. Is God this vengeful, unforgiving deity who will gladly wipe us off the face of the earth for even small infractions? Or is God the God of love and compassion who calls out for justice and rescues the widow and the orphan. Is God the God of the 23rd Psalm or the 74th which begins, “O God, why have you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?”

Jesus’ answer to that question of what God is really like is simply, “Look at me. I do what God does. God does what I do. We are one…heart and mind.” Jesus is focusing on behavior. The writers of the Preaching Peace Commentary put it this way. “Jesus does not come with power, he comes serving, he does not come with judgement, he comes with healing, he does not come with vengeance, he comes with forgiveness.” And Jesus makes the claim that’s the way God is, and also claimed he knew what he was talking about.

That’s why I think that when Jesus thought about the 23rd Psalm he would think, of course God would prepare a banquet for us in the presence of our enemies, because God cares for us and loves us that much. But God would also invite them to join us.

Jesus knew that the valley of the shadow of death was never far away; not only the death of these bodies of ours and the grief that we feel when people we love die, but also the lost jobs, the broken relationships, the crushed dreams, the fear and anxiety we feel about so many things, the oppression, the greed, the cruelty, the discrimination, the corruption. There are so many places where we encounter the shadow of death, we don’t need to bring any more.

And God isn’t going to lead us to any of those places but rather to places of green pastures and still waters, even if the shadow of death is just a stone’s throw away. We need God to walk with us through those valleys of the shadow of death and lead us to those green pastures and still waters. And God does it.

Jesus knew, though, that God doesn’t do it alone. When God prepares a banquet for us in the presence of our enemies, somebody has to set the table and clean up afterwards, not to mention share the meal. That’s us. That’s what the body of Christ is about, helping people find those green pastures and still waters, walking with them as God walks with them through the valley of the shadow of death. There are souls we get to help restore.

This afternoon is the CROP Walk. There are a lot of hungry people in this world and the CROP Walk is not going to bring an end to hunger. But can you imagine what it is like to be hungry but for a while, at least, there is food? It must feel something like green pastures and still waters. What if you didn’t have to worry any more about your children starving to death? Wouldn’t you feel like God has walked with you through the valley of the shadow of death? And all because we believe what Jesus believes about God, that God wants hungry people fed and for us to find ways to create structures and help the the hungry to develop the resources so hunger is not a constant shadow in their lives.

I think we need to hear this Psalm at funerals, peace protests, and so many other places. That Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd indicates, to me, that he sure thought about this Psalm. It tells us a lot about God, a lot about Jesus, and a lot about ourselves.

They didn’t read the 23rd Psalm at Jesus’ funeral because, like so many people in this world, he didn’t have one. But he lived believing that goodness and mercy would follow him all the days of his life. And he was right. This Good Shepherd not only showed us God, but he showed us who we can become because of the God who is our shepherd.