My old school song was in Latin. And when I was taught it in primary school, we weren’t even given a translation. So, even today, I can recite it at break-neck speed without the first idea of what it means. A tribute then to the memory of youth. A similar feat can be the ultra-swift recitation of the 23rd psalm. Since many of us were forced to learn it by heart. Yet the danger is the same as with the school song, words without understanding.
By Xxinvictus34535 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Let us then take time today to tease out this, the most famous of psalms. Let us take time to meet it afresh not as a memorising chore but as a friend. Let us indeed find within its refreshing depths, meaning that will get us through to those green pastures and quiet water flowing by.
Of course, the key word in the 23rd Psalm and indeed our lesson from John’s gospel is ‘shepherd’. Now this conjures up those overly sentimental portraits of Jesus carrying a lamb in his arms. Yet this meek and mild image is somewhat misleading. For, in the Old testament, the descriptor ‘shepherd’ was often used for a king. Therefore, we should perceive from our psalm not just God’s promise that we will get through that valley of darkness but that he has the means of doing so. In fact, it is his rod and staff that comforts, protects and gives us peace of mind. In our personal reflection on this psalm, then, let’s swap the shepherd motif for one of a commanding power guiding us into righteousness. The right way of helping to spread tables with food, of providing overflowing cups of clean water and of ensuring safe dwelling places. That indeed means restoring the soul of a community so that we all fear no evil.
Let us now leap forward many centuries to meet the mind of the writer of John’s Gospel. Here again the image of the shepherd is invoked. And once more, the picture of a rather strangely Anglo-Saxon Jesus carrying an adorable lamb comes flooding into mind. Yet, once again, I must counsel caution. Ok we should continue to hold onto the powerful king concept, but I am also aware of a fly in the ointment. Since, the 1st Century Jewish listener to Christ’s teaching would have other views on shepherds. It a point I don’t often raise at Christmas. The reason being no nativity play would complete without the traditional appearance of small boys adorned with mums’ tea towels.
But a two thousand years ago in the Holy Land, shepherds were viewed as outsiders. They lived rough wandering lives in the hills, they didn’t go to the synagogue and they could not observe Jewish rituals.
Therefore, we could make our lesson from John more contempory by reading Jesus as saying – I am the good bouncer. No one comes through to God expect via my security. Some other places have real thugs on the door but with me you are safe and will be secure inside.
At first this reading is disconcerting. But then with some thought, not least of the events of the past few weeks, we can get a fresh feel for that level of comfort Christ is offering. Put directly, he is someone who rushes towards danger when everyone else is running away. Someone who will fearlessly intercept the bad before injury is caused. The person who will push into the smoke and flame to carry us to safety no matter the pain and risk to themselves.
Here then is an image for us to carry into the next week. The vision of a powerful and courageous Christ as our rescuer and protector; the idea of him being our fourth emergency service.
Talking of the fourth emergency service, I believe that the Automobile Association used that catchphrase in their advertising a few years back. I have to say, I have just paid my annual subscription that organisation and it wasn’t cheap. But when you need them, you need them. So it is with Christ the king Shepherd and Christ the guard Shepherd. Therefore, we do need to pay our subscription. We do need know what Christ offers and be part of his security team. Moreover, need to keep in touch ready to call in any emergency.
There is a story told of an old vicar being asked to party. He went along but to his dismay the other guests were the rich and famous. Not surprisingly, he felt like a fish out of water. Suddenly someone had the idea that all should take part in the entertainment. A well-known pianist played entrancingly, a celebrated singer gave full voice and a great actor recited. He had just played the role of a saintly missionary and repeated the 23rd Psalm version from the script. Then it came to the minister’s turn. He protested he knew nothing except the 23rd Psalm and that had already been done. Everyone demanded he did something. Then our actor stood up and said – I knew only the Psalm’s words but you know the Shepherd himself.
Let us then know words less and the shepherd more. Let us talk less shepherding and rely more on the shepherd. Let us dine now with the shepherd as King and protector. For then alone will we not want for more.