Acts 2:14a,36-41 • 1 Pt 2:20b-25 • Jn 10:1-10
A man tells a story of a visit to Pompeii that deeply influenced his understanding of the image of a shepherd. The hills surrounding Pompeii are fields for sheep that graze on the grassy slopes.
While exploring this area, the man encountered a shepherd leading his sheep to pasture further up the hillside. This shepherd looked like a shepherd. He was dressed in peasant clothing and carried a shepherd’s crook. As the shepherd walked, he sang a tune, and the sheep followed, bleating every step of the way up the slope.
The two men stopped and greeted each other. After a few pleasantries in broken Italian and broken English, the shepherd resumed his walk, but the stop had been just long enough for some of the sheep to wander off the path looking for grass. The shepherd began whistling a series of different tunes. With each tune an individual sheep’s head would pop up from the grass, twitch its ears around until it located the shepherd, and then bound back to the flock. What became clear was that the shepherd had a distinct whistle for each and every one of his sheep.
In Feasting on the Word, Jeff Paschal described the Twenty-third Psalm as being “the Mona Lisa of the Psalms.” Its beauty is unquestionable. What Rev. Paschal regrets is that this Psalm seems too often used only at funerals. He regrets this is because the Twenty-third Psalm is meant for the living.
Cattle have to be driven along. Cowboys stay behind and alongside the herd to keep it moving forward as a group. They typically avoid riding in front of the herd because, if the cattle suddenly stampeded, anyone in front of the herd could get hurt.
Sheep follow their bellwether, the one sheep that leads the flock. Sheep develop deep trust in the one voice of the shepherd who guards them, and they respond quickly when they stray.
In the context of a funeral, we think of “The Lord” in the psalm as Jesus. We should remember that Jesus had not yet taken on human flesh when the psalm was written. “The Lord,” to David, the author of Psalm 23, is God the Father. This is a psalm that Jesus himself would have prayed expressing absolute trust in His Father.
A direct translation from one language to another is difficult at best. Nuance is often lost. Our translation says, “beside restful waters He leads me.” Restful does not mean the water is calm. Restful describes what the water does. “Beside,” while a poetic interpretation, loses the sense that we’re being led “to” or “upon” something. The phrase could be translated as (but not as poetic), “God leads me to waters of rest,” or, “God causes me to be refreshed upon the waters of rest.” This phrase means much more than having a shepherd lead us to a pretty place. The shepherd is actually the one who becomes the source of our peace.
Our beautiful and poetic second verse says, “He guides me in right paths for His name’s sake.” There is a depth of meaning here we almost never capture in English. This Psalm is about trusting God completely. The verse’s meaning is more along the lines of “God leads me as a helpless one.”
In the wild, when animals eat, they are nervous. When eating they can be distracted and fail to pay attention to their surroundings. An animal will take a bite then look around. An enemy could pounce at any moment. Relying on God, however, we do not have to worry as animals do. “You spread the table before me in the sight of my foes.” God our shepherd guards us in such a way that we can eat in peace and not worry about predators waiting to sneak up on us unawares.
Today is also a special day for us in that it is Mother’s Day. On this day we recall the best our mothers have done for us. We also celebrate an idea of the perfect mother and cast our own mothers in that light. If we were to use another metaphor to add to our psalm, we might say, “the shepherd protects us as a mother protects her cubs.”
Our readings today are a call to trust God. They are a word of encouragement to us to be reliant on God. Jesus prayed this psalm to gain encouragement. It is given to us in light of the Gospel, telling us to trust Jesus. He has a song for each of us.
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.