What lies at the heart of the typical English Christian insofar as such a person can be identified? No doubt there will be favourite hymns with the memories they invoke and carry. A few well known Bible stories will be there too. At the very core will be two or three very familiar texts, including the Lord's Prayer and the Twenty Third Psalm.
In its desire to be the Church of all the people, the Church of England has aimed to give the many a minimal amount of teaching rather than a great deal to the few. Arguably that is both strength and a weakness and also a reminder of the essential simplicity of the faith.
The priest who finds himself called to the dying does well to read the Lord's Prayer and Psalm 23 because at a very deep level those two classic expressions of faith have the power to put us in touch with God.
It is sad that the psalms have become less used in contemporary worship because they are such wonderful vehicles of prayer, enabling us to express the full range of human feeling from praise and joy through to deep sorrow and despair. They are still there in our Prayer Books ready to read daily through out each month.
Our readings today include the 23rd Psalm. So let us have a closer look at it.
- The Psalm begins with a pastoral scene. Using strong biblical imagery with immediate resonance to contemporaries in the rural society of the day, the Psalmist describes the Lord as a shepherd. In Jeremiah God himself promises to shepherd his people. In the Gospel Jesus had compassion on the crowd because 'they were like sheep without a shepherd'. Jesus also describes himself in such terms in St. John' Gospel. With the Lord as our shepherd we will not want. God's provision does not fail. The Lord makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. There is a hint of compulsion there. Most of us, much of the time, resist God's desire that we should find rest and peace in him. In the busyness of the modern world it becomes harder and harder to find, but God's promise is that he will give it to us, if we let him.
- Not that the psalm is about a spiritual rural idyll. The good shepherd is also with the sheep in danger as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The picture is that of a guide helping us to find the right pathways through life and through death. Throughout life we are faced with many perplexing choices and decisions. The Bible and the Christian tradition provide us with a valuable source of guidance. There is no need to fear evil because of the accompanying presence of God. His rod drives off evils, his staff rescues, provides comfort. We can learn what that means if we imagine a shepherd and his flock scattered over a mountainside with ravening wolves. Guidance, protection and rescue all require a trustworthy shepherd.
- The psalm starts with a picture of stillness, takes us through dangerous, stony territory, even death and ends with a description of a banquet and of plenty. Jesus often spoke of the Kingdom in such terms. A table is spread before us in the face of those who trouble us. We are anointed with oil, a symbol of kingship, of healing and divine favour. Our cup is running over. Such is the economy of grace. We are always given more by God, full measure, flowing over, the abundant life offered by Jesus. Remember the Jesuit teaching that we should ask God for what we most deeply desire and ask for more!
- At its conclusion the Psalm points us to eternity. Followed by goodness and mercy all the days of our life we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever, enjoying a banquet in a palace, in the of the rich and varied, company of redeemed humanity, in the full presence of God.
- The 23rd Psalm then, is a great teacher of prayer. We can draw on it time and time again in all the many circumstances of life. So let us end with a prayer.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, Good Shepherd who gave your life for the sheep; gather into your fold those who have wandered away, feed those who are hungry, give rest in green pastures to those who are weary of life, bind up the wounds of those who are injured, and strengthen those who are weak; guide us all in right pathways for your name's sake.
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Last updated 12/07/2003 23:00 Author: Fr David Shepherd