Psalm 23 is one of the most familiar passages in scripture. Some of you, like me, had a painting of Jesus tenderly holding a lamb with another sheep looking trustingly up at the Good Shepherd. Some of you, like me, when you attend a memorial service where the 23rd Psalm is read, find yourself mouthing the words, as if some sort of muscle memory took over your conscious mind. It is one of the most comforting Psalms, reassuring us of God’s presence in the midst of whatever befalls us.
Shepherding typically summons peaceful scenes of rolling hills and stone walls, lush grass, quiet waters. Such impressions are in sharp contrast with the reality of a shepherd life. In Scripture, shepherding is dangerous. The shepherd must fend off or kill predators or thieves, while navigating hostile terrain. The Good Shepherd chooses to literally lay down his life for the sake of the flock.
Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant – in the book “Dictionary of Symbols” (Penguin):
“The shepherd symbolizes watchfulness and vigilance; the shepherd is the nomad, a stranger and pilgrim. The shepherd acts as guardian. He observes the Heavens, the Sun, the Moon and the stars and can predict the weather. He distinguishes sounds and hears the noise of approaching wolves, as well as the bleating of lost sheep. He is regarded as a wise one whose activities are the result of contemplation and inner vision.”
The image of shepherding plays an important role in Israel’s history and sense of identity. The patriarchs were shepherds. Israel was led like a flock through the wilderness in the Exodus, with the shepherd Moses using rod and staff as shepherd. David, the shepherd boy, was called from the hillside to become the leader of YHWH’s people.
As the psalm moves away from peaceful scenes, the psalmist speaks of assurance of safety even in a valley overshadowed by death, where destruction is close at hand. YHWH is actively present, saving the psalmist from fear. The image the psalm elicits is one of ‘fierce tenderness,’ a God who protects and provides. And sheep need constant protecting as they wander without a thought, grazing and straying up dangerous hillsides, and down into rushing waters, or headlong into danger.
Here is where the psalm depicts the ever-vigilant shepherd with utmost calm – when surrounded on all sides by potential enemies, the Shepherd provides a feast where the psalmist is anointed with oil with wine overflowing – delighting in abundance, prosperity, and deep rest and peace even in the midst of danger and destruction. Rather than being pursued by enemies – within and without, it will be YHWH’s goodness and mercy that will never cease. YHWH’s presence will be the place the psalmist knows as home.
In the KJV, that last line is translated, “I will dwell in the house forever”.
The NRSV: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”
The footnote says nothing about eternity or forever: In Hebrew it is translated as : ‘length of days’, meaning they will dwell in the house of the Lord, they will continue to worship in the temple, returning there again and again as long as they live. It is there in the temple that the psalmist will praise YHWH, the shepherd throughout her life.
John Holbert was editor of the psalms and canticles in the 1989 UM hymnal. When he brought information about the most accurate reading of the Hebrew text of Psalm 23:6 to the hymnal revision committee, one man said that if he dared to put that reading into the psalms section of the new hymnal, he would vote against the entire book! He was not going to give up the words that had nurtured and sustained him throughout his life: “I shall dwell forever”. There was a compromise – by including the KJV reading in the book, though not in the section of the psalms, adding a footnote that lovers of the KJV could find it on page 137. Holbert wrote:
“Who am I to snatch a beloved text, however wrongly rendered, from one who dearly loved it, a reading that bolstered a faith desperately in need of bolstering?”
So where do we place ourselves in these texts on Good Shepherd Sunday?
Thinking about sheep makes me think about our dog Denali, who has a pretty good life – where she knows where home is, where she is loved and taken care of. And still when the gate is accidentally left open she wanders on a little walk-about to whereabouts unknown – at least to us. We go through the neighborhood calling her name, but two things hamper our progress – she’s losing her hearing AND whatever hearing she still possesses – it is quite selective. But one thing we have come to count on – she knows where she lives AND to this point – she always makes her way home – usually bounding around a corner, her tail up and free, with the proudest smile. And as frustrated as we might have been, we are always elated to see her come home.
There is a verse of a hymn that has been one of my favorites for a long time that sums up Denali’s wanderings and walk-abouts as well as our own human need to wander:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here is my heart, Lord, take and seal it, seal it for your courts above – not to mention courts here on this lovely and dangerous earth.
When Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd, I know my sheep, and they know my voice” – It is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It does not say, “Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.” It says, “You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.” Jesus as Good Shepherd promises protection, that the valleys of death and depression and despair are not traveled alone.
Karoline Lewis: We need that sense of Safety and protection. With whom do you feel safe? Safe with your truth, who you are, who you want to be. Safe with your grief and your sorrow and your fears. Safe with your celebrations and joys and dreams. Safe with your aspirations and hopes and accomplishments. Safe with your thoughts and your concerns and your needs. Resurrection is safety. From death’s grip, from grief that could overwhelm hope; anguish that could crush the spirit; loneliness that might isolate the soul. Shepherd is totally committed to the well-being of the sheep. Who is committed to the well-being of you? Just you? Anyone else?
The shepherd knows his sheep intimately. Who knows you, truly knows you?
The empty tomb is a promise of protection. Not from the truth of life, but for the sake of the truth of your life. What is that truth? That you are who you are. That God loves who you are and desires you to be who you are — in every moment of confidence and of self-doubt. That you are a sheep in Jesus’ fold and that nothing, no one, no church, no institution, can change that. Ever.
The abundant life is not necessarily about abundance in years, wealth, or status, or accomplishments. It is life that is abundant in the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, love that overflows to others. Amidst all the voices that evoke fear, make demands, or give advice, the voice of the good shepherd is a voice of promise — a voice that calls us by name and claims us as God’s own.
Secure in this belonging, we are free to live the abundant life of which Jesus spoke: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.
There are times in my life when I go on little walkabouts, running away from God, even though I know where home is. I may be going deaf, but I can still hear God calling my name. And along with the psalmist, will you join me in coming home to the House of the Lord to praise and worship God again and again as long as we have breath – all the days of our life.
Gracious God, we thank you this day for calling our name, for knowing us inside and out. We thank you for your grace and your mercy and your love. We ask you to be with us, not only this day but for forevermore. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.