Psalm 23 has been a favorite Scripture of many people, but it has often been cheapened through a sentimentalized understanding of the word “God” or “Lord.” The richness of this Psalm only appears when we view this “shepherd” as the Reality that creates, sustains, and terminates all realities, as the Reality that we confront in all the ups and downs of our daily lives. So here is my very slight rewording of this Psalm in order to emphasize its original meaning:
Reality is my shepherd, so I lack nothing.
This shepherd provides green pastures,
and leads me to peaceful drinking water.
This Ground-of-all-being persistently renews life within me,
and guides me step-by-step on the path of righteous realism.
Even when I walk through a valley dark as death,
I fear nothing, for the Great Shepherd is leading me.
Dear God, my shepherd, when Your staff pushes me
or Your crook holds me back,
I see these actions as my comfort.
Indeed, Oh Final Mystery, You spread a picnic for me,
even in the presence of my enemies.
My head is anointed in Your oil of honor.
My cup of aliveness runs over.
So I say to all of you here listening:
Goodness and love unfailing will attend me,
all the days of my life,
and I shall abide happily within this Enduring Wholeness
my whole life long.
I am convinced that the above understanding of this Psalm is the understanding meant by whoever it was that wrote this Psalm. Though the original vocabulary was different for this ancient poet of realistic living, I believe that his or her deep awareness about realistic living was the same as the one I am attempting to express.
Jesus was surely familiar with this Psalm. Indeed, I believe that Jesus added nothing to this Psalm except a full devotion to living it. Jesus was nothing more than a good Jew in the terms meant by this Psalm. Such a happily devoted trust of Reality is the basic attitude that could unite Jews and Christians and both Jews and Christians with Muslims.
I mean this seriously; Jesus was nothing more than a good Jew, where “good Jew” means living Psalm 23. Let me spell out how I think Jesus lived this Psalm. When his disciples became anxious about how they were going to be fed, Jesus referred them to the sparrows. “God feeds them,” he pointed out. “You can buy a dozen sparrows for a quarter. Don’t you think God values you that much?”
The Sadducees of Jesus’ culture were well-to-do religious leaders who had colluded fully with the Roman Empire in order to maintain their status, wealth, and positions. Jesus viewed them as dead, unlike Abraham Isaac and Jacob who were still alive.
The Zealots of his time sought to protect the integrity of Judaism with military action. Jesus rebuked this attitude. He saw that “God” had invested the Roman Empire with an overwhelming power that could not be defeated at that time. Here is his mode of rebuke of the Zealot attitude: “If a Roman soldier ask you to carry his pack for a mile (which he is lawfully permitted to do) carry it, and offer to carry it a second mile. If he slaps your face, offer him a second cheek. This is how you stand up to Roman power. This is what realistic living looks like.”
Jesus also rebuked those Pharisees who sought to exalt themselves over the masses through a detailed obedience to the Jewish rulebooks, in order to be rewarded by Reality in this life and in the final audit of time. He saw that they were honoring minute rules while ignoring the weightier meanings of the law—the full demands for realism, love, and justice. He likened them to straining gnats out of their soup, while swallowing camels.
Jesus was drawn to the John-the-Baptist movement of his time. John saw that the core issue toward being realistic in that sick culture was acts of repentance. Come to the river and have water pour on your head as a public symbol of your departure from unrealistic foolishness and for a renewal of your dedication to realism. Jesus joined those who did this.
All these acts of Jesus illustrate what living Psalm 23 looks like. And the Jesus story about Psalm-23 living had an even deeper meaning. When John got his head chopped off, Jesus, so the story goes, was led by the spirit into the desert for a 40-day fast. After being temped by the key unrealistic options faced by a powerfully awake person, Jesus began his own movement, knowing full well that the outcome that was met by John would be met by him as well.
The end of the Jesus story spelled out, for those who remembered it and lived it, a seemingly strange paradox. Living the Psalm 23 means dying to all unrealism in spite of the fact that such living is costly. Those who are dedicated to unrealism are not going to tolerate such living. Nevertheless, this is where the beautiful life is to be found. Such living is the resurrection from all death, despair, and daily foolishness. Living that complete trust in Reality and in lived realism (expressed in Psalm 23) is the best-case scenario for your life, whatever it costs you. So let us read the above Psalm once again.