The 23rd Psalm is one of the Bible’s best-known and best-loved Scripture passages. I suspect there are many who can quote the words of “The Lord is my shepherd,” but who cannot quote or identify any other piece from the Holy Word.
On the other hand, my love for this beautiful Psalm is matched by my suspicion that too few people are ready to commit their lives to what it affirms. Perhaps the best they can say is, “The Lord is my shepherd – sometime.”
Life is filled with illustrations of how we place conditions on our commitment to Christ or add caveats to our confidence in God’s loving benevolence toward us.
How often have you seen an athlete score a touchdown – and then kneel in the end zone, bow his head and point to the sky. The symbolism suggests that God was with him to help him make the score. But I wonder: Is he willing to affirm that God’s shepherding presence when he dropped the pass on the previous play? In other words: Is the Lord his shepherd (guardian angel) only sometime?
On more than one occasion, I’ve seen a sign above a cash register that said: “In God we trust. All others pay cash.” It’s not unlike a famous battle cry that said, “In God we trust, but keep your powder dry.” In terms of present realities, we claim to be a nation founded on the belief that God has endowed us with great benefits – including God’s special protection. Perhaps that’s why “God Bless America” is such a favored song. How does that fit in with the reality that our nation spends more on military than a handful of the next nations put together? (Yes. I understand. In a world filled with such animosity and hatred, it’s prudent that we have the ability to counteract the evil intentions of others.)
My concern is that we’ve completely separated our confidence in God’s benevolence from so much of our individual and/or national thinking. For instance, where in all of our current presidential campaign rhetoric has there been any appeal to God’s vision for us, or to a commitment to Christ’s values, or to any suggestion that we should think less about OUR needs (because the Lord is our shepherd) and more about what our faith calls us to do for OTHERS.
For too many people (obviously) trusting in God is an occasional thing, brought into play only when it’s convenient. Or a companion to such selective religiosity is the intensity of some to impose their form of righteousness on others. Alas, those same people seem unable to incorporate Christ’s concern for the needy into their own life’s priorities. Does that mean that as long as the Lord, who is their shepherd, keeps them from want, they think they have no responsibility to sense the painful wants that others of God’s “children” are experiencing?
Please forgive me if I sound too cynical, or even too harsh. It’s just that I see the needs of our world – not only in terms of terrorist threats – but perhaps more so in the ways that we do not walk often enough with God. In so many ways, Jesus asked us to put aside what I call traditional piety, a righteousness seemingly obsessed with LAW. Instead, Jesus asks us to emphasize the values he proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, Jesus asks us to demonstrate our devotion to him by our sensitivity to today’s needy, today’s outcasts, today’s sinners, today’s bereaved.
We cannot escape and we dare not forget how Jesus said, “Even as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.” Yes, I’m confident that the Lord is my shepherd. I’m even more confident that we are called to help God be a shepherd to all of God’s people.
William McCartney is a retired United Methodist clergy and an emeritus professor from The Methodist Theological School.