The following is a reflection on the 23rd Psalm, the Psalm properly appointed for Lent 4A
Easter 4A,B,C, Proper 11B & Proper 23A, according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
Why this Psalm? Of all the ancient texts, and all the glorious pieces of scripture, what makes us as a people and as a culture gravitate towards this one? I’ve presided over funerals where the majority of those in attendance didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer, but they could stumble through the 23rd Psalm.
Why this Psalm? You’d think that an image as archaic as “shepherding” wouldn’t easily inspire. If you’ve ever spent anytime with sheep, they’re cute enough creatures. They leap so wondrously in the air when they are young. But, they smell. They’re loud. They frighten easily. It’s not like much anyone these days aspires to “shepherd” as career path.
So, what is it about this Psalm which grabs us and doesn’t let go?
So, my theory is that this psalm transfixes us because of the picture of contentment it offers. The whole Psalm is about how The Lord provides for everything. The Lord makes sure that His sheep want for nothing.
But, when you get down to it, the sheep in the Psalm don’t want for much. Grass. Water. The right path. A meal. Goodness. Mercy.
The cup runneth over, but the cup doesn’t runneth over with rock concert tickets, golf clubs, and objects of luxury. The cup runneth over with everyday, mundane things. The basics.
The simple life.
Psalm 23 is the very picture of contentment with life at it’s simplest.
And, O God, do we want that. O God, do I ever want that.
How many magazines, books, TV channels have been inspired by the drive for simplicity? How many vacation and car commercials focus on the contentment that is promised?
We so crave the contented, simple life. And yet, it’s the thing that we work hardest against.
We fill our lives with the strangest and busiest of things. How many people do I run into through the week who finish our brief conversations with, “Well, I have to run off and…”? How many times to I finish brief conversations with that?
We fit in just one more thing. One more project. One more sport. One more activity.
And, how often do we do those things in spite of losing the things we really do want? A morning in church. An evening with the family at home. A date with our spouse. A few moments of listening to the story of our children’s days.
My cup runneth over. Oh, hell yes. But, most of the time our cups runneth over with the wrong things.
But, what we yearn for, what we really want, is contentment. We talk about how our homes and basements and attics are filled with junk we just need time to sort through. We talk about needing more hours in the day and more days in the week.
When all we want is to stretch out on a lush lawn by the still waters, with nothing but goodness and mercy. All the days of my life.
For when we have that kind of contentment, even the shadow of death doesn’t rattle our cage. Even the presence of our enemies can’t wipe away our appetite.
The kind of contentment that Psalm 23 offers though, can’t be attained through reading an article on “Cutting Through Your Clutter,” or by taking a course on “Managing Your Life Now.” It isn’t offered by a diet, or even 45 minutes a week of yoga.
It’s the kind of contentment we get from following our Shepherd. I’m told that shepherds in the middle east don’t drive their herds, they lead them. They don’t smack them in the hind quarters, they walk ahead of them.
Because the sheep know that the Shepherd is going to take them somewhere good. It’s trust. It’s worry-free.
It’s the kind of contentment which makes us want to not just recite this Psalm, but drink it in. Gulp it down. Let it carelessly spill from our mouths and drip down our chins, cooling the rest of our body.
That we might rest in those waters, and in the house of the Lord, our Shepherd, for ever.
That’s why this Psalm.