This weekend many a churchgoer was treated to hearing, and perhaps receiving a sermon on, one of the most beloved texts in Scripture: Psalm 23. Even if you don’t know anything else about the Bible, you probably are familiar with this psalm; you might even know it pretty closely by heart.
I know it has been helpful for me to know Psalm 23 by heart. There has been more than one most-poignant opportunity to recite this psalm to someone on their deathbed, as I hold their hand and include it in what might be our final prayer together. It’s feels awkward and unfeeling to drop hands at that point so I can ferret a Bible and read.
This is such a beautiful-sounding and beautifully evocative psalm, so perfect to fill the mind of one making the most significant transition of life. The image of the LORD unfailingly guiding us along the Path, leading us beside “still water” and having us lay down in “green pastures” is so peaceful and reassuring. The notion that he prepares a table before our enemies (even Death) and anoints our head with oil (as if we’re a hero on a mission) is so powerful, honorable and honoring. This is the person we definitely want at the helm wherever we go…he’s going to do great things for us and through us! Who wouldn’t want to dwell in the house of this impressive leader?
It’s interesting to note that the shepherd is a symbol of great leadership throughout the ancient world. It makes sense that this psalm would make the LORD look so tremendous; it is apparently a common motif in the ancient world to associate shepherds with great leaders. Judah Ivy in his article “Shepherd as King in the Ancient Near East” notes that Homer, in the Iliad, describes kings with this pastoral imagery several times. It is used to describe leadership in the Code of Hammurabi. Assyrian and Babylonian emperors are known to crave their minions see them as shepherds on their mighty imperial thrones.
Even today, “pastor” (meaning “shepherd”) is a most esteemed title of spiritual leadership. It is such a gift and means soo much when someone who indeed seeks my guidance calls me “Pastor Jane.”
Incredibly beautiful music evokes the beauty, importance, and inherent nobility of shepherds. For example, this….
However, there is another side to shepherding. There are some other interesting things about shepherds to keep in mind.
For one thing, in actuality, shepherds are typically persons of very low status in their culture. They are poor, own no land, tend to be dirty and smelly, and live hard-knock lives.
In the ancient world, shepherds would often be the “second-borns” (and third- and fourth-borns to boot) of a family; as the farm and all its wealth always went to the first-born, the rest of the males would have to fend for themselves, and shepherding was often the profession of second (and third and fourth) choice. It didn’t require special training, equipment (besides a crook), or the assistance of others. In fact, shepherds often didn’t marry and have families; their labors didn’t produce enough money or barter goods to feed anyone other than themselves. They died, early, and without the ability to pass along their name (an especially big deal in the ancient world.)
Shepherding might even have been a “despised” profession. In Genesis 46:34, Joseph saves his family from starvation (and annihilation by the Egyptian army) by having them relocate to the Egyptian region of Goshen during a famine. Goshen, the Bible tells us, is where shepherds live and “shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians.” The Israelite clan will be left alone so they can be fruitful and multiply without hassle. Clever, that Joseph!
This is most likely why, in Luke’s gospel, shepherds are the class of folk to whom the angels first announce Jesus’ birth. Luke’s gospel in particular emphasizes God’s partiality with the poor and lowly. Doesn’t get more p & l than this.
Even today, a visit to the Holy Land will allow you to witness shepherds and and their scruffy life. Living in metal lean-to’s, with small families, barely getting by…. They’re known to have shockingly low life-expectancies because, for one thing, they can’t afford to eat well.
Ironically, because they’re so poor, vulnerable, disconnected to the rest of society as well as in great need to be able to go wherever there’s available brush in the wilderness for their flocks to feed; shepherds are the one group of people in Israel allowed to freely travel between Palestinian and Israeli territories. The painful and rigorous boundaries constraining the lives of others do not apply to bedouins. (At least this was true when I visited the region 20 years ago…)
From the Comic Lens, it is almost funny that in the imagination of the culture, a character so almost ridiculously lowly as a shepherd is afforded the highest of honors and the most romantic of depictions. In today’s parlance we might as well be calling Jesus, and/or God, our Good Garbage Collector.
Maybe that’s the point. When we are in desperate spiritual need, while we may think we need a leader who is pristine and perfect and popular -- someone we can be proud to associate ourselves with -- maybe what we really need is a presence that we know fully relates to the dirty and dumpy and isn't shocked by the smell of what's rotting inside us.
When it's time to traverse to the next realm, maybe it's more helpful to know the LORD is able to get us there because He's so lowly the Powers of the World have no interest in Him and so He can sneak us along.
What would it be like, what difference would it make, if we were to recite “The Lord is my Garbage Collector”? Even at the deathbed??
An incredulous snicker is warranted and welcomed.