In fact, outside of the U.S. people don’t use Psalm 23 for funerals. On top of that, it’s not the way this Psalm was read in biblical times. Now, prepare to have your minds blown, unless you’ve heard this before, which wouldn’t surprise me. Psalm 23 was originally meant to be read more like a political tract! I know, crazy right! Now don’t let that ruin it for you, stay with me! My hope is that this will make the 23rd Psalm even more awesome for you! It was a treatise against human rulers, in their case, against the king. And it really didn’t matter which king, which human ruler, it applied to them all. It could be their own king, who wasn’t treating them as a shepherd should, or a foreign king who believed himself to be God on earth.
Here’s another way to think of it. Today, it’s hard to turn on the news and not see protesters protesting something. And they carry these signs. And they are short and to the point. Some of them are very clever. I would never make a good protesting sign because I like words too much. It would be too big to carry by the time I got done. But that’s the way that this Psalm was used, as a protest against a king and/or that king’s government. So, hear it this time, with that implication added in:
The Lord is my shepherd; NOT YOU!
I shall not be in want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures NOT YOU!
and leads me be- side still waters.
You restore my soul, O Lord, NOT HIM!
and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me; NOT HIM!
your rod and your staff, they comfort me. NOT HIS!
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; NOT HIM!
you anoint my head with oil, NOT HIM! and my cup is running over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. NOT HIS HOUSE!
That is the way the ancients heard this Psalm. Different isn’t it? Now I’m not saying that using it in funerals or using it for comfort the way we usually do is wrong. I will continue to use it that way, and continue to use it in funerals but this adds a new layer of complexity for us to use. Especially in the in-between times: for those times when we aren’t in mourning; when we are not at a funeral; when we don’t need comforting; when things are going well. In those times, what does this Psalm have to say for us, and how shall we use it then? This is what I want to stretch us to think about this week.
|Possibly the oldest image of Jesus,|
a 3rd-century fresco
from the Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome,
of Christ as the Good Shepherd.
This Psalm was an ancient way of saying to their rulers, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. And that’s where it gets a little dicey for us. Because if we are going to point our finger at our human rulers, whether it’s the president, the governor, senator, mayor, whoever, and hold them accountable to their jobs, and we should, then we have to be ready to hold ourselves accountable to our jobs as well, both as citizens of this great country and as citizens of the kingdom of God that we are called to bring to earth here and now.
If we are going to call ourselves followers of the shepherd Jesus Christ, then that means we not only follow where Christ goes, but also how Christ the shepherd goes. How are we being shepherds to our world? How are we providing nourishment to our world? An example of this would be the Gathering In or contributing to Lutheran World Hunger. How are we being spiritual guides for our world? An example of this might be the Journey of Faith. How are we protecting our world? Who in our world needs our protection? How are we comforting our world; welcoming our world; sheltering; preparing a place for our world?
This psalm not only takes our world’s leaders to task, but it takes us to task as well. And rightly so, because we can’t wait for outside entities to take care of our world, whether it’s our government, other non-profits, or whoever, we are called to take care of the world ourselves. And the world needs us now. And in the same way that this psalm is a model for how we are to shepherd this world, we can be a model for the world of what it looks like to be a true shepherd. May we be bold and courageous enough to allow this Psalm to call us into the hard work of shepherding, during those in-between times, when things are good, when we don’t need this Psalm to comfort us, but rather, to take us to task. Thanks be to God. Amen.