How a fixation on Psalm 23 may hinder us

Apr 21, 2016 by

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Like almost everyone else in the whole world, I love the Shepherd’s Psalm. It well deserves its place as our most favorite passage in the entire Bible.

Even unbelievers are familiar with Psalm 23. Whenever I invite people to join me in reciting it, as I sometimes do at graveside services, for example, I’m amazed at how many are able to join in.

It is little wonder the passage has such broad appeal. It is one of the most personal of all Scripture texts, full of references to “I” (4 times) “me” (6 times) and “my” (4 times). Yet it is all about what a gracious and benevolent shepherd God is, with seemingly no expectation of our offering anything in return.

It is about pure grace.

That’s certainly a message we all need, given how impoverished and dependent we human beings are, and how we much need divine nurture and care, especially in times of loss, loneliness and distress.

But it’s not intended to give us the whole picture of our covenant with God. The other side of the story, found in multitudes of other passages, is about how God calls us and equips us to learn shepherding and nurturing ourselves, and to graciously pass on that love and care to others in need.

It’s that second calling that is so easily and so often overlooked. To a repentant Peter, Jesus’s message is that if you really love me, you will shepherd my sheep, feed my lambs, lead others to places of nourishment and growth (e.g., to “feed” them).

In other words, we are called to be both aware of our spiritual poverty, to be receivers of grace, and to be a means by which we convey grace and help to others. God’s shalom is always to be passed on.

Otherwise, we risk remaining spiritual infants, seeking only our own comfort, safety and blessing rather than living out the mandate of the apostle Paul, who urges all believers to “warn those who are complacent, comfort those who are anxious and afraid, take tender care of those who are weak, and to be patient with everyone.” (I Thessalonians 5:14, paraphrased)

In other words, having been blessed by Psalm 23-style shepherding, we practice that same kind of shepherding toward others.

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared.

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  • Myron Steinman

    Very true, Mr. Yoder.

    I have a question for you. I have sometimes taken the metaphor of God/Jesus as shepherd as an alternative atonement metaphor along side atonement by the need for the violent death on the cross. I have no need to deny the resurrection of Jesus, but firmly believe we must look at Jesus’ whole ministry, (instead of the post Easter fixation on death and resurrection) Further-more if Jesus was non-violent, and Jesus is filled with the spirit of God, how can our new understandings of God revealed by Jesus be based in violence? A new understanding of God revealed by Jesus may be based on non-violence, even when this stance leads to death? I know there is no easy answer Some questions, I believe, must be lived with, until we get a clearer understanding and consensus.

    • Harvey Yoder

      Or is atonement based on an an unqualified and perfect obedience to God, at a level only Jesus as God incarnate was able to fully demonstrate on our behalf, and one in which in a world of evil inevitably results in a violent response from humanity? This may mean that Jesus did not so much die in order that we should be able to avoid death, but that we are called to drink his cup, take up his cross, and follow him even unto death rather than defending ourselves by inflicting violence and death on others.

      • Myron Steinman

        Three separate questions
        1. “..follow him even unto death rather than inflicting violence and
        death on others” That is what I mean by “even when
        this (non violent) stance leads to death.”
        In our generation Martin Luther King, a follower of
        Jesus,died following the way of non-violence. Do we agree?
        2. However, “inevitably” “world of evil”. I would not use those words. I do not think that is helpful. For example see the example of Jonah, or restorative justice in South Africa
        3. Atonement as “obedience” to God. Muslim’s speak of “surrender” to God. Are you writing of something similar to this?