Sixteenth Sunday: The Twenty-third Psalm
Ages and ages ago I went to a public grade school. There were no computers back in those days, no ipads or ipods, no cell phones, no DVR's, in fact, it wasn't until I was about 10 that people started buying color TV's. My school days were so long ago, that the children in public schools actually began their school day with prayer. Imagine that if you can. It wasn’t much, though. Someone would read from the Bible, then everyone would say the Lord's Prayer, with the Catholic kids not saying "Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory", because that was the Protestant version of the Our Father, not the Catholic version, and God forbid that Catholics do anything Protestant.
The reading from Scripture could be from any place in the Old Testament, just in case there were any children from Jewish families. However, most days that reading was a recitation of Psalm 23, "The Lord is my Shepherd." I do remember that one week I was appointed to do the reading; so I thought it would b a good idea to start the Exodus story. I had just seen Cecil B DeMille's Ten Commandments; so I read about Moses and the Burning Bush. The teacher corrected me afterwards and told me that I had to stick to the Old Testament, not the New Testament. I tried to explain that Moses was in the Old Testament, but I got nowhere. I went back to Psalm 23.
At first, this Psalm used to bother me. Why were we saying that we didn't want the Lord to be our shepherd? I finally realized that the "I shall not want" part meant that I wouldn't need anything as long as I had the Lord. That's when I started appreciating the beauty of the poetry. Green Pastures, restful waters, a table set before me loaded with good food, perfume on my head, OK, that sounded creepy, but the dwelling in the house of the Lord for the rest of my days sounded wonderful.
As I got older I started focussing on the other parts of thie Psalm, the scary parts. Sometimes, life takes me through dark valleys, even the shadow of death. Sometimes people will hate me if I show my devotion to God, but God will take care of me.
Today’s first reading and Gospel speak about the shepherd promised by God, God Himself. They point to the Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 23.
Journey with me now, if you will, on a trip through this most popular of all the Psalms.
The Lord is my shepherd. God wants to direct our lives. Jesus felt so bad for the people in today's Gospel because they had no one to shepherd them. He mourns also for us. The world can be a confusing place. Life can be confusing. Governments like those mentioned in the first reading, often demand that people violate their consciences for what they claim in the greater good. Historically, this has always resulted in the people participating in hidden, immoral agendas. We witnessed this happening the last century with the two extremes of fascism and communism. But what should we do when confronted with what is presented as a small moral sacrifice for what is claimed to be a greater moral good? We need a shepherd to direct us. We have one. The Lord is our shepherd. We should follow God. Right is right and wrong is wrong. We have to let God direct our lives, not politicians. This will protect us from taking the steps that would lead to great evil.
I shall not want. God provides that which we really need in life: a reason for being alive. Following our conscience leads us to rest in Christ, at peace with God, at peace in our inner worlds. Those are the restful waters where He leads us. United with Him, we are who we were meant to be, unique reflections of the image and likeness of God.
He restores our souls. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that we should be perfect as His Heavenly Father is Perfect. How can we be perfect? We are human. We are frail. Well, the word that is translated perfect in the Sermon on the Mount really means sincere. Be sincere as my heavenly Father is sincere. When our external actions reflect our inner beings, we are at one with God and with ourselves. We are sincere. Our souls are restored to God's original purpose for our creation. We are at peace. When we are at peace with ourselves and with our God, we want for nothing.
And though I walk through the valley of death, I fear no evil. Yes there are continual challenges in life. In fact, the present life is just a part of the totality of our lives. Here, we are in the valley of death. We are mortal. We become sick and die. Worse, our loved ones die. Still, through all the pain, the suffering and the sorrow, we ultimately trust in God. You are with me, the Psalm proclaims. He is. He guides us with His rod and staff. We are comforted with knowing that whatever happens, the Lord is in charge. He will take care of us. In fact, even when others attack us for our devotion to Him, when others mock us for our faith, even when other Catholics deride us for our determination to live what we profess, even when others mock us because we are not afraid to say what we pray, God will win out. God always wins. Jesus Christ is the Victor. Those who oppose us because we live our faith will eventually witness God's caring for us at the banquet of His Love.
He sets a table before me in the face of my foes. Psalm 23 ends with the great promise: Live united to the Lord and you will experience his goodness and kindness in this life and union with Him in the next life. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
So often we sing this Psalm. So often we pray this Psalm. Today, we resolve to live is Psalm.