As a child, when I heard the word “lint” (pronounced the same as the word “Lent”), I thought of those little specks of whatever people would get on their clothes. I remember every Sunday morning my father using the lint brush to brush off specks on my clothes and those of my brother. In the church tradition of my childhood, Lent was neither a term nor a tradition we recognized.
But I have come to believe that Lent is one of the most important times in the life of the church. It is a time for us to stop, reflect, ponder, reassess, reevaluate, and see afresh our lives and our world in the pure light of Jesus’ example and costly commitment to God’s will on this earth. Lent asks us to slow down, to cease our striving and obsession with business as usual, and to ask important questions and to refrain from skirting the truth about ourselves and our world.
With that appreciation of Lent, how in the world can such a pleasant, sweet, and comforting poem like Psalm 23 possibly help us through the journey of Lent? Well, let’s see.
The psalm begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Actually, what the psalm says is “Yahweh is my shepherd.” Yahweh is that peculiar name for the God of Israel—the very God who created the world; who called Abraham and Sarah to begin a new nation; who delivered Hebrew slaves from an arrogant and cruel pharaoh; who made these “nobodies” God’s own chosen people and entered into a unique covenant with them; who called prophets to speak truth to power, bring down kings, and bring order from the chaos of Israel’s idolatry, greed, and injustice—it was this Lord, this Yahweh who is “my” shepherd. No namby-pamby god here—no sweet grandfather to pat us on the head and give us a quarter. No! This is a God who thunders from Mount Sinai, who parts seas and rivers, and who offers life or death choices. This is the God who is “my” shepherd.
And then there is the word “shepherd.” For us, shepherd is an idyllic term. We can all imagine fluffy sheep in a green meadow with cute, little lambs frolicking around their mothers. But this is not what the psalmist intended by this term.
“Shepherd” was a political term. Kings were called shepherds in the ancient world. (See Ezekiel 34 for a revealing and caustic presentation of kings as shepherds.) Shepherd refers to one’s lord, sovereign, ultimate authority—the one to whom we are answerable and the one we are called to trust and serve. Yahweh is my King, Sovereign—Yahweh and no other. The very first commandment of the big Ten states it well: we are to have no others gods/allegiances before this God—no competing loyalty whether it be political, economic, or familial. No one but Yahweh is to be our shepherd. To have any other lord is to commit idolatry.
Jesus the Jew continued this focus on the absolute obedience we must have to this God Yahweh whom he called Abba. He warned his disciples that they could not serve two masters. They must choose Yahweh or money. They cannot serve both. His charge to seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice reveals that ultimate allegiance his followers must embrace without any reservation.
So, does this make Yahweh a jealous God who can’t stand any competition? A God who just has to be the center of attention and adoration? Although there are passages of Scripture which seem to point to this understanding of God’s nature, the more mature understandings of God in the Bible reveal a deeper insight into God’s motives for such a demand for absolute allegiance. This God knows that only loyalty to the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of this world can bring us peace, give us unity in our lives, and free us from all other “gods” whose intentions are not for our good. Only this God is good enough, wise enough, strong enough, and loving enough to be trusted with our ultimate allegiance and our very lives. Only this Lord—this Yahweh can be trusted to be “my” shepherd.
In commenting on this psalm, the inimitable Walter Brueggemann writes the following: “Then the poet draws a stunning conclusion from this statement about God. I shall not want.” Unlike many who falsely and selfishly interpret this statement to mean that they can have everything they will ever want, Brueggemann offers a different and more worthy interpretation: “I shall not have any other yearnings or desires that fall outside the gifts of God. What God gives will be enough for me.”
Jesus’s words in Matthew 6 illuminate this psalm. Jesus tells his followers not to worry about or be anxious over the food and clothes they need (These were the basic necessities of life in the impoverished world of Jewish peasants at that time.) He points to the wildflowers and birds and suggests that his hearers learn from nature where there is harmony, enough, and overflowing bounty. This Shepherd/this Creator is the one who sustains and blesses. Notice where Jesus looks for examples of trust and life; and notice where he does not look—humans who fret away their lives instead of blossoming and singing to the glory of their Maker.
With some thought and recognition on our part, Psalm 23 with its sheep and lambs and Matthew 6 with its wildflowers and birds suddenly begin to look rather threatening to societies such as ours. These passages are not a nostalgic look back to the good old days of easy, country living or to a weekend return to nature only to go back to the grind on Mondays.
No, these passages, which we have domesticated almost beyond recognition, challenge the greed and ambition of a consumer society such as ours. Our society and its whole economy are driven by the notion that we must have one more thing to be happy—that we have a right to have that one more thing—and that we will get it no matter what the cost to others or to our own souls. But of course, that one more thing does not make us happy, fulfilled and content. And yet rather than questioning the notion, we fall for the same deception over and over again. This pattern reminds me of the Peanuts characters Lucy and Charlie Brown. Over and over again Charlie Brown falls for the promise that Lucy will not move the football right at the moment when Charlie Brown will try kicking it. But Lucy always jerks the football away just in the nick of time and Charlie Brown falls on his rear every single time. He never learns. And we in our materialistic, consumeristic society never learn.
Just think of the ways this destructive and shallow pattern continues in our society:
1) Billions of dollars spent every year on advertising designed to make us miserable with who we are and what we have, luring us into buying products which the advertisers know can never make us happy and fulfilled. In fact, they are betting on that failure so they can seduce us into buying the new, improved model or a totally different product which they assure us will make us happy this time. And like Charlie Brown, we fall for these lies and idolatrous promises every single time.
2) Planned obsolescence designed to make us buy inefficient and cheaply made products which will require more frequent purchases in the future—all in a world with limited resources.
3) Advice from government officials to “spend, spend, spend to stimulate the economy” when we all know that limited resources and environmental vulnerability require wise conservation and investment for the future.
4) The rat race so many in our culture live every day which threatens true “family values,” physical and emotional health, and spiritual grounding. As Lily Tomlin so wisely said, “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat!”
Listen to Brueggemann’s pastoral and prophetic words regarding the purpose of Lent: “Faith in this God [What God? The God of Israel/Yahweh/The Abba of Matthew 6] requires a refocus on all our desires, because most of our wants are contrived and imagined and phony.” This God will be Lord of our wants and our needs, and we need much less when we are clear about the wonder and goodness of God. When we are truly centered in God and become aware of Her presence, love, joy, and will, we find our riches and peace in that relationship which becomes the “great pearl without price” Jesus talks about in the Gospels.
The Lord is my shepherd—such a radical, countercultural, transforming notion in a society which worships the almighty dollar. The Lord is my shepherd—no substitutes allowed or required. That’s the message of Psalm 23. I would suggest that this single message is more than enough to chew on during the season of Lent.
1 A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; 2 he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.Psalm 23 (RSV)
24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or’What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.Matthew 6:24-33 (RSV)