What does Psalm 23 mean today?

A sermon by the Rev. Anna Doherty

Psalm 23, our psalm for today, is one of the most familiar and beloved passages of scripture.

Many people know and recognize psalm 23, to the point where it has almost become iconic in our culture.

Many people even have the psalm memorized:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.”

We hear allusions to the images and language of this psalm in songs and music, in paintings, in speeches and in movies.

But we hear psalm 23 most often, and we pray it most regularly, at funerals or moments of crisis.

Despite being beloved, psalm 23 is associated in our culture almost exclusively with death, fear, or loss.

While psalm 23 is a beautiful and comforting psalm to pray in moments of grief, loss, or fear . . .

Sometimes the tendency is for us to hear it only in one particular way.

As a funereal psalm.

So how do we hear psalm 23 and interpret it today, on this bright sunny day in May?

Not a funeral, but at worship during the Easter season, a time when we celebrate our new life in Christ?

How can we hear psalm 23 today with new ears and open minds?

I think today we can take our cue from our Christian sisters and brothers in other parts of the world.

Because, while we here in American culture most often interpret psalm 23 as a poem about comfort in the midst of grief and loss,

. . . in other parts of the world, Christians interpret psalm 23 very differently.

As a political tract; as a social manifesto.

As a way of proclaiming to the world: I believe and trust in the power of God working in my life.

When the psalm was written, in the ancient world, and even in some parts of the world today, kings and rulers were referred to as “shepherds” of their people.

And yet we know, from the biblical account and from history, that such rulers frequently failed to justly provide for the people.

So to say, in the opening verse of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Is to openly lift up God’s rule, God’s ability to provide for God’s people in contrast to secular rulers.

Psalm 23 emphatically proclaims: “God is the one who provides for me. In God, I shall lack nothing.”

For Christians in other parts of the world, who may live under oppressive political regimes . . .

. . . or those who live in places where rulers or governments consistently fail to adequately provide for their citizens . . .

or for Christians in areas of political instability. . .

To say: “God is my ruler. With God, I shall lack nothing.”

Not only openly condemns the unjustness of political and social oppression . . .

. . . but also states very clearly that the tyrannical powers of the world cannot overcome the life of faith.

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. For you are with me.”

For Christians who may daily walk in the valley of the shadow of death,

whether through political oppression, or grinding poverty, or through war, to name only a few . . .

More than just a comforting verse, Psalm 23 can be a way of orienting and understanding our entire lives.

Rather than psalm 23 just being a comfort, a balm for our grief or sorrow,

it is instead an empowering statement of identity, a way of life.

One that proclaims, “I trust and live in God, rather than the oppressive powers-that-be.”

Now, contrary to many people all over the world, we live in a land of relative prosperity and security.

For most of here starvation is not a daily reality, nor do we need to worry about whether we will have access to clean drinking water.

We can trust that our family members will not be kidnapped, or unjustly imprisoned, or killed because of their political and social beliefs.

And, we live in a country where we are allowed religious freedom, to worship according to our own beliefs.

We may think, at first, that Psalm 23 has little to say to us in this country about how we might understand and live our lives in the face of social challenges.

But the truth is, it does.

Think about it for a moment.

What does it mean for us, who live in a society rampant with consumerism and materialism . . .

. . . where the persistent cultural expectation is that success means only the pursuit of wealth, at all costs . . .

. . . what does it mean for us to say and to really mean when we say: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”?

To say to ourselves: “In God, I already have everything I need.”

What does it mean for us to say to ourselves, when marketing tells us that only buying this or that product, will make us happy or complete . . .

. . . or that accumulating more and more is the only way to feel fulfilled . . .

. . . what does it mean for us to pray “God revives my soul. And guides me along right pathways for God’s sake.”?

To say: “God is all I need to be revived, to feel complete. It is in pursuit of only God that I shall live my life.”

What does it mean to say that even though we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil?

To say to ourselves: “I will resist messages or agendas that can harm myself and others. I will live in God’s peace and in God’s love.”

If we really mean what we say, then Psalm 23 is just as much a political and social message for us as it is for others.

Our individual challenges may be different, but they are just as real.

Psalm 23 can be just as empowering for us and the way in which we live our lives of faith.

Psalm 23 can indeed be a celebration of our life in Christ.

And what is especially empowering about the way in which psalm 23 speaks to us, is that it’s not just about us and our own personal relationship with God.

If we really take psalm 23 at its word, then we are called to help do in the world what God does for us.

As the psalm says: “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.

You have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.”

If we really live with faithfulness, then the great love and abundant generosity of God will cause our cups to run over.

The love and empowerment we have from God will spill over from just us, and we will, with God’s help, share and show God’s love to all the world.

We will help to provide for others, as God has provided for us.

We will love and give as abundantly and generously as God loves and gives to us.

We will support, empower and lift others up, as God supports, empowers and lifts us up.

And we hope to one day live in a world where all people, Christians and everyone, will live free from oppressive forces, free from poverty, war, or other harmful things.

So that we all may dwell in the house of the Lord forever.