Psalm 23 & John 10
Many years ago, while I was working as a student-chaplain in a large hospital, I had an unforgettable experience with the Twenty-Third Psalm. You see, I was paged one evening to attend to a person who was dying. When I arrived in her room, she wasn’t awake, but standing beside her bed was a middle-aged woman who described herself as the woman’s caregiver. Upon further discussion, I discovered that the dying woman was Jewish. The caregiver, a self-described “nominal Christian,” was concerned about praying for her since she, and I as well, wanted to honor her faith tradition. So, we decided to pray from a common text of our two faiths: The Old Testament. And specifically, the Twenty-Third Psalm.
Now, let me pause here in the story and share something. Over the course of my twenty plus years as a pastor, there have been numerous occasions when an apparently unconscious person, begins to mouth the Lord’s Prayer or a favorite Hymn on their death bed. But what happened next was truly amazing. As the caregiver and I recited the Twenty-Third Psalm, the dying Jewish woman opened her eyes, just a bit, and a slight smile crossed her face. Not a smile of glee or great joy, but it seemed to me to be a smile of assurance, as if she understood that everything would be alright.
Now, upon reflection and further study, I learned that the Twenty-Third Psalm is considered by Judaism as one of the great poems of King David, and, as in our own faith tradition, it’s considered one of the most comforting passages in all of Scripture.
But why is it so comforting?
Well, I would suggest that it has something to do with the image of a shepherd. A shepherd tends the sheep, right? She keeps them safe and provides for their security. She makes sure they are cared for and fed. But even more than that, a good shepherd, knows and loves the sheep in her charge. Which is a not-so-subtle transition to our gospel passage for today, John 10: Jesus the Good Shepherd.
Now, as comforting as the image of a shepherd can be, I would like to focus today on the concept of Jesus as good. But in order to do that we must begin with a brief word study on the meaning of term “good.” Good, first of all, can refer to “technical proficiency.” In other words, being efficient at one’s job or effective as a parent or whatever. In this sense, to say that someone is good is to say that they produce a good product or desirable outcome.
Okay. But as we look at our gospel text for today, I don’t think John was complementing Jesus on this sheep-tending skills. Something else must be at play. And that something else is a second and more relevant meaning of the word “good.” Good, as we see it used here, describes the character of a person and the relationships that emerge from that character.”[i] The term good, then, can be understood as living morally, compassionately, or selflessly.
So, when John elevated the description of Jesus as the Good Shepherd to one of only seven “I Am” statements in this book, it tells us not only this it’s important, but that it must necessarily indicate an attribute of God. You see, when Jesus says “I Am..” such as I am the True Light, or I Am Living Water, or I Am the Bread of Life… He is describing a bit of what God is like. How do we know this? Well, remember the whole burning bush thing back in Exodus? Moses asked God for God’s name and God said, “I Am who I am.”
Well, John is intentionally and clearly creating a equivocation between Jesus and God. In the Prologue to the book, John said, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Jesus, of course, was the Word.
So, the character of Jesus, what he says and how he lives, is a reflection of the character of God. So, the shepherd then, Jesus, is fundamentally “good.” He’s good not in the sense of being proficient at something, although I’m sure he was skilled a great many ways, rather, Jesus the Shepherd was good in character just as God’s character or nature is fundamentally good.
Now, this is important to us because we, as people of faith, are called to be a reflection of God, to be Christ-like, to actually “be good” itself in the world around us. And through my experience with the dying Jewish woman, I have come to realize that no matter what name we use to describe the divine, whether it’s God or Father or Mother, or Creator, or whether it’s Yahweh, or the Sacred, or Allah, or whatever… over and over again, in every sacred text of every major religion, we that the fundamental nature of God is good.
Now, let’s pause here for a moment and address the elephant in the room. In the Quran, in the Torah, in the Hebrew Scriptures shared by Judaism and Christianity, and in the New Testament of our own Bible, we sometimes see a vengeful and violent portrayal of God. So, how do we reconcile a God whom the writer of I John says “is love itself” with the God of wrath we read about? In other word, how can we proclaim that God is good, that God seeks justice and liberation and equity for all people, when some passages of Scripture suggest otherwise?
Great question and it’s not an easy on to deal with. But, with that being said, I think the most valuable way of understanding this disparity comes to us for the late Marcus Borg. When speaking on this very subject, he emphatically held that the bible is finally a human product.
He wrote, “…it contains the voices of our spiritual ancestors in ancient Israel and early Christianity. It tells us about their experiences of God, their thoughts about God, their understandings of what life with God is about, their praise and prayers, and their wisdom. We hear their voices, their witness, and their testimony. And their limited understandings, their blindness and conventions, and their desire for protection and vengeance against their enemies. It’s all there.”[ii]
What a brilliant way to understanding the Bible. Far too often we’ve been led to believe that the Bible is a divine product, as if it was somehow written by God. But in reality, the Bible is a human product, written by people who were inspired by their experience of the divine, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in their time and context, and as defined by their culture. The Bible, when seen in this way, opens to us the experiences of our forbearers, to their fear and doubt, their insecurities, and their need for vengeance. But it also illuminates for us the presence of God that they felt as they faced these challenges and attempted to be and do better; as they attempted to be good.
So, my friends, it’s with this understanding of the Bible and with the realization that the nature of God is finally good, that we are naturally, and unmistakably led, to a desire be and do better ourselves. We have a term for this: Justice. Justice is about being aware of the needs of others and then doing whatever it takes to fulfill those needs. Justice, like God, is in and of itself, fundamentally good. That’s why we’re called, as people of faith, to have hearts for justice. But not only hearts, we are challenged to have hands that serve, feet that march, minds that think, and voices that advocate for justice, liberation, and equality for all people and for the conservation of this planet. I don’t know how to say it any plainer.
My friends, as we continue to propagate hearts for justice, as we continue to heal as a nation, and as we continue to recover as a world, my hope and prayer for all of us, is that we will be safe, that we will be well, and that we will remember the assurance of the Twenty Third Psalm, that God is our shepherd, the Good Shepherd, and God’s justice is the justice we seek for the most vulnerable among us, for the most marginalized and oppressed, for the stranger, for the refugee and the immigrant, for the lonely and the hopeless, and for this fragile planet. God’s justice seeks the good. May we seek it as well.
This is my prayer.
Amen & Amen.
[i] Feasting on the Gospels. John Vol. 2. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elisabeth Johnson eds. (Westminster John Know Press, 2015) pgs. 14-18
[ii] Marcus J. Borg. (Quote from a posting on marcusjborg.org January 22, 2014)