When a child of seven, I lived with my mother and father, two sisters, and a brother in Annapolis, Maryland; for a boy of seven it was a great place to be. We lived in a home a few blocks from the Naval Academy and adjacent to the historic Saint John’s College. The academy grounds gave my brother and me a giant playground of statues to climb on, museums to visit, and parades to watch. Saint John’s College provided a campus where great and ancient trees grew. I climbed the ancient trees and raced around and the antique buildings occupying what I thought of as wonderful park. Hidden away on the campus was a monument with a World War I tank we could crawl in and pretend to be soldiers. My most memorable occasion with that tank was when my brother dropped the turret hatch on my fingers. The tank disappeared soon after December 7, 1941. I presume it became wartime scrap metal.
However, what I remember the most was a stone church down the street. To a seven-year-old, almost eight-year-old, boy it was a massive structure made of brown, rough-hewn stones. The church building occupied a corner across from the Saint John’s College campus where people walked to worship every Sunday. Because it was a Baptist Church, our family did not attend that church. We, instead, went to the Francis Street Lutheran Church closer to the center of Annapolis. As I recall, these churches had no parking lots. Most people walked to church. Further, I do not recall any audio-visual equipment, relying instead, on books and the spoken word. I liked going to the Francis Street Church and thought it was very nice and even mysterious. The stone Baptist building, however, held a sway over me; or, I could say it enthralled me.
I only saw the interior once and that was during a summer vacation program for children. Thus, my enthrallment was not the stone exterior but instead the giant stained glass window dominating the stage where the preacher stood. The window portrayed Jesus as a shepherd.Jesus held in his left hand a shepherd’s staff and in his right arm, he carried a lamb. At his feet, other lambs nestled and clung closely to him. Jesus gently stared at me from that window. Well groomed, apparently telling me that sheep herding is not an arduous occupation—in the stain glass representation, Jesus has not broken a sweat. In retrospect, the Jesus in that window portrayal is hardly what I now think a shepherd is.
My view of shepherds changed in Mojave, California, when I was ten years old; my family moved to Mojave after the war years. Mojave was the Wild West; another great place for a boy. One day, while standing next to the town marshal or county sheriff (a thrill for a ten-year-old boy who loved to go to western movies) at the “coach” stop, a man in ragged ten-gallon hat, filthy clothes, worn down boots, walked by. The marshal said, “Now, there goes a sheep herder.”
Regardless of the diminution of shepherds or sheep herders in my eyes after that exposure to sheep herders, the view of the stain glass window in that Annapolis church building stayed with me. Not so much for its artistic quality but the fact that the words of Psalm Twenty-three were along each side of the picture of Jesus and sheep in the window. The teacher of our group of third grade kids at the church’s summer vacation program said we were to memorize those words. We did. We memorized the Psalm and it was the first Scripture I ever knew.
While the words, when spoken, sound very nice and sentimental, especially when from the Authorized or King James Version of the Bible, they did not mean much to me at seven, going on eight, years old. For example, what are green pastures if you had never seen one? What does it mean to have your cup run over? If that happened in my home, my mother would be very upset. The words, “Setting a table before mine enemies…”, reminded me of a picnic. Further, we had enemies in those days and I was not about to set a table before the evil Nazis or the Japanese who had bombed Pearl Harbor. Moreover, that thing about the “valley of the shadow of death” totally mystified me. Never seeing a valley and never knowing anyone who had died I did not know there was anything to fear. Nonetheless, we memorized the Psalm and felt very proud in doing so. While my questions were not burning ones at that age, I have wondered about Psalm Twenty-three for several years.
This Psalm has much sentimental value. There is hardly a funeral without it and always in the language of the King James Version. However, when I read it in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, the sentimentality diminishes.
In the Tanakh, the beginning verses are similar.
The LORD is my shepherd: I lack nothing.
He makes me lid down in green pastures,
He leads me to water places of repose;
He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths as befits His name.
With the exception of the phrase, “He leads me to water places of repose,” these first two verses go along with what I know of this Psalm.
However, if we read the Psalm carefully and with a consistent view of the Psalms of David, we can see that Psalm Twenty-three is not a shepherd’s song. It is the boast of a warrior as he faces the deepest darkness of battle. Because God leads him, the warrior fears no harm. The rod and staff he carries are of God and are tools of battle. Almost as a dare to his opponents, the warrior spreads before his enemies, in all his God-given superiority, a table. He plans to have lunch before he enters into the fray. In his superiority, the warrior is certain God anoints him and because he is God’s warrior, he has all the wine or drink he needs to stiffen his resolve to face the terror of battle. The victory is certain and victory secures for the warrior a place in the house of the LORD in his retirement. Do not let me take anything away from you. You may want the picture of a shepherd that leads the flock to green pastures and still waters. However, the green pastures and still waters are a boast that because he God’s warrior, God will take care of him. As an aside, I think led to running water is a better deal.
What we truly want is the picture that Jesus draws of himself. Jesus is the gatekeeper of the sheep pen in one place and the good shepherd in another. In his role as gatekeeper, Jesus calls people to the security of God’s love. As a shepherd, Jesus is out in front, he is the pioneer leading us to the nearer presence of God. In that nearer presence, we feel strengthened and able to deal with life as it progresses. Further,Jesus reminds us in his shepherd analogy that God does not intend to leave anyone out of ultimate universal plan for the world. Additionally, the allegory of the Good Shepherd reminds us that if God is at work in the world and Jesus is proof of God’s work.
Nonetheless, there must be human beings, people, willing to lead. Jesus is always the example. In being a shepherd, Jesus shows us that God’s plans for the world will not work without human participation and human participation requires leadership. In other words, Christians are not the flock, but the leaders bringing the world into the nearer presence of God. Jesus’ example also demonstrates that participation is voluntary. In God’s plan, each of us is invited and God, through Jesus, keeps inviting us to join in the mission of making the world better and preparing us to be in that “nearer presence”.
As a shepherd does, Jesus leads not prods and there is no dog yapping at our feet. All we are required to do is to listen for the shepherd’s voice learning in the process how to call others to this excellent way of life.
As we listen, Jesus voice strengthens us to face the changes and chances of life. The brave warrior of Psalm Twenty-three faced his enemies with confidence, possibly with bravado, which we should avoid. Nevertheless, his strength came not from himself but from listening to God.
The enemy threatening us on every side is human indifference. However, the threat of mass destruction, greed of the powerful, and terrible illness are realities we must face as the Psalmist faced his enemies.
The still waters are actually a place of repose. The good shepherd leads us to repose, to a quiet mind, and to the inner peace of self-confidence.
The sentimentality of Psalm Twenty-three has value and I am not suggesting there is a need to take it away from people in distress or at funerals. I am suggesting that the use of the Psalm can be to be a song of the warrior facing the changes and chances of twenty-first century life.
People need a moment of repose, good food, strong wine, to face the enemy, but those who lead do not languish in green pastures or drink from putrid still waters. They get up and go out to meet the challenge.