The Good Shepherd

Easter 4C / Mothers’ Day
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
12 May 2019

[ video ]

It is a beautiful accident that our secular Mothers’ Day this year coincides with the Fourth Sunday of Easter, with its theme of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

Like a mother whose ear is attuned to the call of her own infant, or an infant whose ears are attuned to the sound of its mother’s voice, Jesus describes his sheep as those persons who have an ear for the wisdom he both speaks and embodies:

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
(John 10:27–28 NRSV)

Palestinians-shepherds-Bethlehem

Normally I focus my sermon on the Gospel, since our core task as Christians is to listen to the wisdom of  Jesus. However, today I want us to reflect together on the meaning of the Twenty-Third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd”.

You have the text of the Psalm in the bulletin (or on page 243 of the Prayer Book, if you prefer). If you are keeping an eye on the APBA version, you may notice that it differs slightly from the translations found in the Bible.

A Prayer Book for Australia, Liturgical Psalter

1 The Lord is my shepherd:
therefore can I lack nothing.
2 He will make me lie down in green pastures:
and lead me beside still waters.
3 He will refresh my soul:
and guide me in right pathways for his name’s sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil:
for you are with me, your rod and your staff comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me
in the face of those who trouble me:
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup shall be full.
6 Surely your goodness and loving-kindness
will follow me all the days of my life:
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

 

Bible (New Revised Standard Version)

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; [Heb waters of rest]
3 he restores my soul. [Or life]
He leads me in right paths [Or paths of righteousness]
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, [Or the valley of the shadow of death]
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely [Or Only] goodness and mercy [Or kindness] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long. [Heb for length of days]

For the sake of comparison in the web version of the sermon I am also providing the New International Version translation:

The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
forever.

 

Just to keep you all awake, I am going to work with the translation from the Jewish Publication Society so that we hear the sense of these ancient words with their original Jewish accent.

1         The LORD is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.
2         He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
3         He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths
as befits His name.
4         Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.
5         You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.
6         Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for many long years.

 

The variations in the same Psalm across these different translations invite us to move beyond the literal words and imagine how we might hear these words with fresh ears, ears and hearts attuned to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.

So let’s work our way through the six verses of this well-known psalm.

 

1 The LORD is my shepherd; I lack nothing.

“The LORD” is the conventional way to represent the ancient sacred name of God, which in the Hebrew Bible is written with just its four consonants: YHVH. This “Tetragrammaton” survives as the “Jeho/Jehu” and/or “iah/jah” syllables in many names for individuals and places in the Old Testament: Jehoshaphat, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, etc.

It may once have been pronounced as “Yahweh”, but during the second century BCE it became customary to avoid saying the sacred name. Instead, other synonyms were used: ‘Adonai (Hebrew for “My Lord”), Kyrios or Theos (Greek terms for “Lord” and “God” respectively). In many anceint Hebrew biblical texts the vowels of ‘Adonai were written with the consonants of the Tetragrammaton to create an unpronounceable word as a reminder for readers not to say the sacred name.

In later Christian use that was entirely misunderstood, and the term “Jehovah” was thought to be God’s name.

This mistake survives in classic hymns such as “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah”; and in the theological gibberish that is propagated by the so-called Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This ancient covenant God is understood by the psalmist as his existential shepherd: guiding, protecting and sustaining the person of faith. With such a shepherd god, we never fear anything. We can never be in want. We lack nothing good.

 

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;

In the marginal pastoral lands of Palestine, finding a good supply of green pasture was (and remains for the Bedouin even now) a core responsibility. Along with fresh pasture, the sheep need water in a dry and rugged environment.

The second verse of Psalm 23 draws on this familiar reality to describe the gentle presence of God in our lives.

 

3 He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths as befits His name.

The familiar words—“my soul he doth restore again”—are better translated in the Jewish Publication Society version.

The divine shepherd renews our life, fresh every morning, and guides in the right paths: the tracks that suit our needs and which lead us to the green pastures and the waters of repose.

The track God chooses for me is the perfect path for me to follow.

 

4 Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.

The “valley of the shadow of death” has been one of the most evocative phrases in the traditional version of the Twenty-Third Psalm. Notice how the Jewish translation represents that line.

In our darkest moments, whatever they may be, the divine Shepherd is always with us. We are never alone. Never abandoned. Never bereft of hope.

A Palestinian shepherd typically carried a club (rod) to fend off wild animals and a crook (staff) to guide the flock in his care.

Fierce protection and gentle care are the hallmarks of the God who is always with us. Emmanuel.

 

5 You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.

It is generally agreed that the final two verses of the Psalm involve a change of metaphor from “sheep” in the care of its shepherd to “guests” in the house of the LORD, with a place at the table of God

This metaphor especially resonates with Christians because of the centrality of the Table of Jesus in our faith and practice.

We gather at the Table of the Lord. The Table which Jesus has prepared for us and where Jesus is the host. The Table where we are anointed with oil: the oil of gladness, the oil of healing, the oil of discipleship. This is the Table where we drink the same cup as Jesus drank, the cup which renews us with the life of Jesus. His life poured out for others. Our lives poured out in grateful service.

 

6 Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for many long years.

Psalm 23 concludes with a flourish.

The love of the divine Shepherd and the generosity of the divine host will never fail us.

Notice that is is not an affirmation of life after death, but rather an expression of hope for God’s blessing here in this life.

Here in this life we are guests at the Table of Lord and already living in the Lord’s House.

The earth is not a consolation prize nor a place of exile from which to escape when we can finally go “home”. This is our home. It is the house of the Lord. And it is a good place to be.

 

So let’s hear this Pslam one more time:

1         The LORD is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.
2         He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
3         He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths
as befits His name.
4         Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.
5         You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.
6         Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for many long years.

 

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton and Rector of the Anglican Parish of Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in my publications, including my blog posts, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Diocese of Grafton nor Christ Church​ Cathedral in Grafton.
This entry was posted in Bible Study, Grafton Cathedral, Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Good Shepherd

  1. sjduckett says:

    Hi Fr Greg Thanks for your posts, although this one is now a little old – I’ve just got back from 5 weeks in Europe – I thought you might be interested in yet another translation, this one from Alter: Alter, Robert (2019), The Hebrew Bible: a translation with commentary (New York: W. W. Norton).

    Best wishes

    Stephen

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