How would you describe your relationship with God? In what terms would you characterize how you and God exist together, with each other, in the world? I’m not a betting man but if I were, I’d bet it wouldn’t be this: “you know I’m like a dirty, filthy, wool bearing bovine and God’s like the hand to mouth living shepherd who beats my dumb ass into submission with a stick when I stray off course.” I may be wrong, but I’m guessing I’m not wrong. Despite this obvious and ongoing incongruity, the imagery surrounding the 23rd Psalm remains popular with countless Christians, devotional writers, and others who know nothing about sheep.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time around sheep would never talk about their relationship with God in terms of a sheep to shepherd. As agricultural metaphors go, it’s perfectly designed for our sanitized culture. We view nature and food at a distance, through the lenses of shrink wrap packaging and cute memes shared on Facebook. The reality of feces, mud, and the sheer brutality of raising sheep on the steep hills of Wales, Ireland, Scotland or Palestine is lost on modern day readers. When most Christians encounter the 23rd Psalm, we have it presented to us as kind of non-violent bedtime story that Jesus might have read to Mahatma Gandhi.
So what is this Psalm about? Like any good passage, I see something new each time I encounter the Psalmist’s words. One of my greatest fears in reading the Bible is to encounter reruns. Reruns are fine for television, not for the Bible. I like to read a passage I’ve read hundreds of times, know by heart, and still find something I’ve missed. What are we missing from this Psalm we think we know like the back of our hand? There are things we are missing in parts of the Bible we have grown too comfortable quoting, hearing, and repeating to others.
Psalm 23 is about power. Who has the power and who is powerless? How is power used? What does it mean to be weak? In a relationship of complete submission, where power is total, is there any such thing as freedom?
Power, as the Psalm indicates, is both creative and destructive. The corrective rod and protective staff are ever before the sheep. Continual affirmation while also maintaining the imminent possibility of destruction dominates the collective life of the sheep community. This transcendental tension mirrors the individual engagement between sheep. In our pastures, sheep do not exist in splendid isolation, unaware of the world or other sheep. We create our own power relationships between each other, despite the shepherd’s powerful promise of provision. Where all submit to the shepherd, some now submit to each other.
The sheep are allowed, through the shepherd’s power, to sleep, drink, live, eat, and bathe. Power, as both Saint Paul and Michel Foucault noted, is the key to freedom. If I am allowed to sleep, drink, live, and eat, what freedom do I hold? The freedom I lack is defined by the power I do not possess. I find no humanity, no freedom, and little hope in the words of the 23rd Psalm. Yes, you may live in the Lord’s house, but at what cost?
The Christ-event is defined by weakness and powerlessness. The 23rd Psalm stands in stark opposition to the events of Good Friday. On that day, Psalm 23 wasn’t a feel good prayer to boost Jesus’ dying spirit as he hung from a Roman cross. (Remember, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 from the cross.) Psalm 23 contained empty phrases which reflected the all too human preoccupation with power and control. The Psalmist told a story of a God who should be not a God who is. God wasn’t a shepherd catering a meal by a river. Jesus wasn’t willing to pay Psalm 23’s price. He was dying a miserable death and not because the Shepherd demanded it. He was on the cross because the sheep insisted he be killed. Freedom, when it came, was bloody and it hurt. Yet, without the loss of Psalm 23’s idea of control, salvation still would be given out at feeding time, when the shepherd felt like it, because he has the power.
It’s time to re-read power, whether divine or secular. Jesus did.