Psalm 23 is hands down the most famous poem in the Hebrew Psalter. People seem to read their own lives and experiences into this lyric little song. That is quite amazing given how foreign most of the imagery is. Have you ever met a shepherd? Spent any time with sheep? Has your head ever been actually anointed with oil? Have you ever had a feast while your enemies were forced to look on? If the answer to some or all of these questions is “No,” then we have to wonder why this unfamiliar imagery is nonetheless so familiar to us.
Probably it is because what underlies these words is something we all know deep in our bones: the need to be cared for. The need to be watched over. Granted, the George Gershwin ballad “Someone to Watch over Me” is all about romantic love but on a more general level, we know the feeling. “Tell me, where is the shepherd for this lost lamb? I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood I know I could, always be good to one who’ll watch over me . . .”
Maybe we feel this need the more acutely because sometimes it feels like there are not many shepherds around. We don’t have shepherds much in the wider society. Today we have managers. But shepherds and managers are not the same.
Whenever Jesus uses the pastoral image of a shepherd for himself (and see this week’s Year B Gospel Lection for such an instance), the point is nearly always the same: as the good shepherd of his sheep, he will risk his life and even temporarily abandon the flock if that’s what it takes to save the one lost sheep. As the true shepherd who loves his sheep, he will let himself be killed rather than see one single sheep harmed. In every image of the flock which Jesus employs, it is always clear that as important as the whole flock is, each individual sheep is as important to him as is the larger collective.
But many folks today don’t think that way at all. Instead we hear about giant corporations that do cost-benefit analyses for their products. They calculate how much risk they can get away with in an effort to pad the bottom line by not having to lay out any extra money for additional safeguards or further costly research & development.
So food companies have been known to let certain products hit the market despite their knowing right up front that there is a slight risk that certain people could well get sick from this food and maybe even die. But if the percentage of people at risk for that is small enough as to be statistically insignificant, then they forge ahead. Politicians often live by polls and so base some pretty big decisions on projected outcomes. Even if some people may be disadvantaged by this or that program cut, if the majority will benefit (and so vote the right way once again at the next election), then those who will be harmed are back-handed aside as statistically irrelevant.
Ours is a world that looks to see how much it can get away with. Ours is a society where the majority rules and the minority had best just learn to live with it. It’s all about the cost-benefit bottom line analysis.
But not so with the shepherd of Psalm 23 nor of Jesus as the good shepherd. A cost-benefit analysis would never cause the shepherd to leave the 99 sheep on their own for a few minutes in favor of finding the one lost lamb. If the shepherd had a risk-management committee, they would never advise him to let the wolf kill the shepherd but would say you could better survive to fight another day even if for the time being the wolf nabbed a sheep or two.
In other words, ours is a world and a society made up of hired hands with very few true shepherds around anymore. We manage risks and outcomes but don’t put our lives on the line to avoid all bad outcomes.
But then, perhaps it’s for that very reason that we could all use a truly Good Shepherd in our lives. Now, maybe, more than ever.
As someone once put it, “God counts by ones.”
Years ago my colleague Neal Plantinga and I heard Rev. John Claypool deliver a sermon at the installation service for Tom Long at Candler Divinity School. At the end of the service Claypool used a benediction we had never heard before (though we have since traced it back to the breastplate of St. Patrick). Neal memorized it on the spot and wrote it down and we have both been using it for years since. I can testify that I regularly have people comment on how rich this blessing is. At my former church people requested that this be the benediction I use at weddings and funerals. And it very much speaks to the sentiments and emotions evoked by Psalm 23:
God go before you to guide you.
God go behind you to protect you.
God go beneath you to support you.
God go beside you to befriend you.
Be not afraid.
And let the blessing of Almighty God:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Descend on you, settle in around you
And make its home in you.
Be not afraid.
Go in peace.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 25, 2021
Psalm 23 Commentary