Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 22, 2012 – St. John’s
The dominant theme in today’s biblical readings is provided by the final words in the passage we just heard from St. Mark’s Gospel: “When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.” This image of Christ as a shepherd come to protect his flock and to lead them to nourishment is prepared for by the first reading in which through the prophet Jeremiah God indicts the leaders of Israel, who, as often in the ancient world, even outside the Bible, are called shepherds, for having scattered his flock into exile; God then promises that he himself will shepherd his people and bring them back to their home meadows and will provide them with a true shepherd. And to this announcement, which Christians understand to refer to Jesus Christ, the response we offered was the singing of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.”
I have just started reading a well-reviewed book entitled The Psalms through Three Thousand Years, which begins with a chapter entitled “The Lord is My Shepherd, Then and Now.” In it, William L. Halladay points out that this is one of the best-known passages in all of Scripture; there are people who know little else about Christianity, or remember little else of it, than the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm. It has provided comfort and assurance for Jews and Christians for millennia. My older sisters remember starting each school day in public grammar school with the recitation of this Psalm.
When and by whom the Psalm was written is not known, nor whether it was intended for private or small gatherings or for some grand occasion, such as the enthronement of a king. The sentence with which it begins originally was a confession of faith: out of all the gods worshipped at the time, who might claim the title, the Psalmist has chosen Israel’s god. “Yahweh is my shepherd,” he sings, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The god who struck a covenant with Israel, the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the god of Moses: he is my shepherd. The Psalmist is re-affirming Israel’s faith, and evoking the imagery of a shepherd to express his confidence in that god’s guidance and protection, even when he must walk “in the valley of the shadow of death,” as the older translation has it, better than the rather anemic modern versions.
Christians, however, from a very early point on have identified “the Lord” as Christ himself, so that when they pray the Psalm, they can see and hear the claim: “The Lord, Jesus Christ, is my shepherd,” knowing that, as in today’s Gospel, but even more explicitly in John’s Gospel, he claimed the imagery for himself–“I am the Good Shepherd”–in fulfilment of the prophecy that God would provide a great shepherd for his people. Correspondingly, Christians have given a sacramental interpretation of certain verses of the Psalm: the refreshing waters to which the shepherd leads his flock are those of baptism, which was also the moment in which God anointed our head with oil, that is with the Holy Spirit; the table spread before us and the overflowing cup lead naturally to thoughts of the Eucharist.
It is no wonder that the Psalm has continued to live so deeply in the minds and hearts of believers down to our own day. For Catholics, the line about fearing no evil even when walking through the valley darkened by death, along with the “Hail Mary,” provides us with the strength to face the last great enemy, death itself. When seven of her children stood around the deathbed of my mother, that prayer and this Psalm were among our efforts to give her, and us, comfort and peace. Who knows how many musical variations have communicated the message of the Psalm? One that I have learned of only recently is a Negro spiritual that continues to comfort grieving congregations:
We shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
We shall walk through the valley in peace.
If Jesus himself shall be our leader,
we shall walk through the valley in peace.
Although this Psalm is often recited or sung at wakes and funerals, its message also applies to our everyday lives, and it could easily be used to start every day–as it did in that public school two generations ago. By reciting it from the heart we would be placing ourselves into the care of our good Shepherd, confident that he will bring us to food and drink that refreshes our lives, that he comforts and defends us when we walk in valleys shadowed by trial and even by death. The Psalm then would help sustain us in the faith and hope that would enable us to walk through the valley in peace.