As I mentioned yesterday, the well worn image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd makes me uneasy as a preacher. I have to work a little harder to overcome what feels like the easy options in preaching and look for something new or different. I have to be willing to spend some extra time turning the crystal to see this image in a new way. So, this week, I’m trying just that. I’m not sure how successful I’ll be, but I know a sermon will be preached on Sunday, so I’ve got until then to come up with something to say.
Today, my mind is drawn away from the Gospel lesson and toward the comfortable, and comforting, twenty-third Psalm. Here, maybe more so than in the Johannine lesson, we get some unpacking about what it means to look at God as a shepherd. Since I don’t know any shepherds, and the only people I know who carry a shepherd’s crook also wear pectoral crosses and purple shirts and usually do their roaming in the driver’s seat of a fuel-efficient SUV crossover, I need something to help me wrap my mind around this metaphor.
The Lord is my shepherd,*
I shall not be in want.
The first thing we learn from the psalmist is that the image of God as shepherd includes God as giver. Sheep aren’t primarily raised as food. As such, to bring it into the 21st century, the goal of the shepherd isn’t to plump up the sheep as quickly as possible to put a lean, dry cut of meat on your plate in as little time as possible and at the lowest cost. Rather, sheep are raised for the long-haul. They are raised to provide wool season after season. The provision that the shepherd tries to give to the sheep, then, isn’t about immediate gratification, but about the quality of the final product. It means that want is a term that requires some nuance.
To our 21st century American ears, not being in want sounds extravagant. It means a shiny new iPhone every year to connect to the blue tooth on our washed and waxed weekly Suburbans. But in context, to not be in want means to be taken care of with our best interests in mind. Rather than being a call to engage in the commercialism of today, following God as our shepherd means trusting that what we have in our lives is what we might need for the moment. I guess it means really believing when we pray, “give us this day our daily bread.”
The Good Shepherd has our long-term spiritual health in mind. We are being prepared not for today or tomorrow, but for eternal life. As such, we are called to follow the shepherd who provides all we need, not for the immediate, but for the eternal.