After eating out for Mother's Day, my wife, son, daughter-in-law and I were going to see a movie. But we had a little time and so my son went to run an errand before show time. He went to the pet shop in Key West to get some fresh food for his sugar gliders, these creatures that appear to be half-chipmunk and half-flying squirrel. Specifically, he had to pick up some meal worms. His gliders needed the protein. And when he got to the theatre he realized that he couldn't leave the plastic container of these caterpillar-like creatures in the car during the movie or they would die from the heat. The gliders won't eat them dead. So, over the objections of his wife, he brought them into the theatre. We saw the movie without incident and we all liked it. All the humans, that is. I have no idea what the mealworms made of either the storyline or the special effects.
That night my son called and as we talked he fed the gliders. He was having some trouble. It's not that they are repulsed by the mealworms; they love them. But he couldn't just give a worm to any head that popped out of the hanging bag where they slept. A glider might grab a worm, pull its head into the bag, transfer the worm to a paw, and stick its head out again, hoping to be given a second worm. This may seem clever but evidently they can't really keep track of 2 worms at once. My son has seen a glider with a worm in each forepaw, trying to simultaneously eat and fend off another glider going for the same worm, only to forget to protect the second worm, which was being nibbled on by a third glider. My son can tell the gliders apart at a glance but to be fair he was trying to lure them all out and make sure everyone got a worm. He and his wife also give them fruit and yogurt as well as the occasional peanut. They've done their research and they keep the gliders neither too thin or too fat. They've picked up some tricks through experience as well. For instance, the mother of the brood had a mean temper but they found they could mellow her out a bit with a capful of beer.
Domestic animals need constant care. I have no idea how long gliders have been kept as pets but some animals have been domesticated for thousands of years and really can't go back to living wild. Like sheep. The patriarchs were all herdsmen. King David originally watched his father's sheep. Suited to an area with scarce water and scanty grass, sheep remained an important part of the economy when the Israelites transitioned from nomadic tribes to a nation. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that, with almost 400 references, sheep are mentioned in the Bible more than any other animal and that the shepherd is a powerful symbol of God's care for his people. As the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, from which I got a lot of this, says shepherds are "providers, guides, protectors and constant companions of the sheep. They are also figures of authority and leadership to the animals under their care." And the 23rd Psalm is practically a textbook for being a shepherd. Let's look at it in detail.
"The LORD is my shepherd" begins verse 1. Notice that the psalmist, traditionally identified as David, is speaking not for the flock as a whole here, but as an individual. God is his personal shepherd. And everything that follows is because of that.
"I shall not be in want." A better translation is "I lack nothing." God does not provide everything we want, but everything we need. It's an important distinction. When I forget my phone, I feel as if I've lost something essential. But it's not really. I survived for many decades without a cell phone. It is handy and can be a lifesaver when, say, your car breaks down far from the increasingly rare payphone. But what I really miss is the ability to call people for anything from anywhere, not to mention access to the internet. Now I could point out that I have bookmarked several medical sites, the daily office and even an online Bible. But mostly I use it to check my Facebook and email. When you have a lot of stuff, you tend to reclassify the stuff you like as necessary. Sometimes it takes a crisis to remind you what is really essential. God makes sure we have what we need.
"He makes me lie down in green pastures." Sheep eat grass. The picture here is of a lush green meadow, where the sheep has fresh young grass to feed on. You would find this in spring or during the rainy season. Otherwise the sheep would have to feed on weeds or the stubble of harvested fields. God may not guarantee everything you desire but what he does provide is good and satisfying.
"And leads me beside still waters." Sheep could go a long time between watering and then drink as much as 9 liters, according to the IVP Bible Background Commentary, another resource for this sermon. The Hebrew here is of a restful place with calm, quiet waters, as opposed to a swift or raging river. It might be a well or spring. Again the message is that God provides and provides the best.
"He revives my soul." Literally, this says "a breathing creature, he restores me." A lot of translations render this "he restores my strength." I like Eugene Peterson's paraphrase: "you let me catch my breath." Rest is important. God built it into the week as the Sabbath, when all are commanded to stop working. Our 24/7 world is so relentless that the Huffington Post's Living section has a page just devoted to sleep, with a subsection on stress. We are running ourselves ragged and it is showing up as sleep disorders which in turn lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. God wants us to take rest. He wants it so much he put it in the Ten Commandments. It's the day we stop worrying about the workaday world and think of the Kingdom of God. It's the day we lay down our burdens and take up his burden which is light. It's the day when we remember that we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
"And guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake." Sheep aren't the most intelligent of animals and left to themselves have been known to get lost or fall into ravines. So the shepherd calls the sheep and leads them along the correct paths. His reputation as a good shepherd depends on his knowing the lay of the land and safe ways to get to new pastures and watering holes. Sometimes we think God's ways are arbitrary, as if the moral rules he sets down are like your peculiar aunt's rules for how to act when you visit her. But God set up the universe; he knows the right and wrong ways to treat it and following his ways are ultimately going to spare you a lot of grief.
"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…" Sometimes the shepherd has to lead his sheep through a deep ravine where predators might lurk in the shadows. The sheep could be expected to be unnerved. Similarly when we face the possibility of death, fear shivers just below the surface of our seeming unconcern.
"I shall fear no evil; for you are with me…" The sheep follow the shepherd despite the dangers on every side. His presence is reassuring. So, too, should the presence of God help us calm down. He is always with us. And if we concentrate on him rather than on what scares us, we can get through the bad times.
"Your rod and your staff, they comfort me." A shepherd carried a rod, a cudgel really, in his belt. It was used to ward off thieves and hungry animals. The staff he used for walking had a crook. It could be used to hook a sheep that had tumbled down a ravine and pull it out. God protects us from external threats as well as our own proclivity to fall.
"You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me." The metaphor shifts to that of a host and his guest. A host was expected to protect his guest as long as he was under his roof. This is especially true if the host were a king. A person's enemies could only look on impotently.
"You have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over." At a royal banquet, the guest would be anointed with the choicest of oils. It made them and the whole banquet hall smell good. Oil in this case symbolizes gladness. And the cup isn't overflowing, just at the point where it threatens to do so. A better translation is: "my cup is filled to the very brim."
"Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…" The word traditionally translated "mercy" here means "steadfast love" or "faithfulness." God's goodness and faithful love shall follow us wherever we go, all our lives.
"And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." It looks as if the metaphor has changed again. The picture is that of a pilgrim, going to the house of the Lord, which was the Temple in Jerusalem. But metaphorically, it is anywhere God is, as Jacob realized when he got his vision of angels climbing to and from heaven. He named the place Bethel, which means "house of God." Where God dwells, there is paradise. Which is why most translations take the phrase which the new RSV properly renders "my whole long life" and use the word "forever" instead. Our hope is not just for this life but for life eternal. God, as Jesus points out, is the God of the living, not the dead.
It may be humiliating to be compared to sheep, but we do tend to follow the crowd and we do tend to get lost and we do tend to pick the wrong paths to wander down. But God is our shepherd. As is his Son our Savior, who laid down his life to save us. Our basic role is to listen for his voice and follow him, trusting that he guides us onto the right paths, and that no matter how dark or scary it becomes, he will protect us and rescue us when we have fallen into a pit. We are to follow in the sure and steady hope that he is leading us to plentiful nourishment and peaceful rest and refreshment.
We often make following Jesus much more complicated than it needs to be, getting lost in details and forgetting the big picture. We often get panicky or put too much trust in our own ability to control things which ultimately we can't. The enduring appeal of the 23rd Psalm is that it reassures and calms us with the knowledge that God is our guide, our protector, and our provider. He has our best interests at heart. The hardest part for us may be simply trusting in him who will never abandon us and will be our companion now and forevermore.